Synopses & Reviews
Ann Packer's debut novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier
, was a nationwide bestseller that established her as one of our most gifted chroniclers of the interior lives of women. Now, in her long-awaited second novel, she takes us on a journey into a lifelong friendship pushed to the breaking point. Expertly, with the keen introspection and psychological nuance that are her hallmarks, she explores what happens when there are inequities between friends and when the hard-won balances of a long relationship are disturbed, perhaps irreparably, by a harrowing crisis.
Liz and Sarabeth were childhood neighbors in the suburbs of northern California, brought as close as sisters by the suicide of Sarabeth's mother when the girls were just sixteen. In the decades that followed through Liz's marriage and the birth of her children, through Sarabeth's attempts to make a happy life for herself despite the shadow cast by her mother's act their relationship remained a source of continuity and strength. But when Liz's adolescent daughter enters dangerous waters that threaten to engulf the family, the fault lines in the women's friendship are revealed, and both Liz and Sarabeth are forced to reexamine their most deeply held beliefs about their connection. Songs without Words is about the sometimes confining roles we take on in our closest relationships, about the familial myths that shape us both as children and as parents, and about the limits and the power of the friendships we create when we are young.
Once again, Ann Packer has written a novel of singular force and complexity: thoughtful, moving, and absolutely gripping, it more than confirms her prodigious literary gifts.
"Packer follows her well-received first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier, with a richly nuanced meditation on the place of friendship in women's lives. Liz and Sarabeth's childhood friendship deepened following Sarabeth's mother's suicide when the girls were 16; now the two women are in their 40s and living in the Bay Area. Responsible mother-of-two Liz has come to see eccentric, bohemian Sarabeth, with her tendency to enter into inappropriate relationships with men, as more like another child than as a sister or mutually supportive friend. When Liz's teenage daughter, Lauren, perpetuates a crisis, Liz doubts her parenting abilities; Sarabeth is plunged into uncomfortable memories; and the hidden fragilities of what seemed a steadfast relationship come to the fore. Packer adroitly navigates Lauren's teen despair, Sarabeth's lonely longings and Liz's feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Although Liz's husband, Brody, and other men in the book are less than compelling, Packer gets deep into the perspectives of Liz, Sarabeth and Lauren, and follows out their conflicts with an unsentimental sympathy. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A quiet narrative whose emotions, we come to realize, run deep and true....Commendably ambitious and ultimately rewarding." Kirkus Reviews
"As in The Dive From Clausen's Pier, Packer makes the ripples from one act so involving, you can't pull away." Good Housekeeping
"What's most impressive...is Packer's ability to set a story in the wealthy and beautiful suburbs of San Francisco and make her characters' suffering authentic." USA Today
"A novel has the potential not simply to hold up a mirror to our known experience but also to reflect the seemingly indecipherable tangle of our inner worlds." Los Angeles Times
"[A] close and careful look at the bonds of friendship, and the painful aftermath when a loved one follows the sad compulsion to end her own life." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[R]eaders will be pleased to find Packer's remarkable talent for characterization in the pages of her second novel." Charlotte Observer
About the Author
Ann Packer received a Great Lakes Book Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award for The Dive from Clausen's Pier, a national bestseller that has been translated into ten languages. Also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, she lives in northern California with her family.
Reading Group Guide
1. Ann Packer has been praised for the lifelike quality of her fiction. Do you feel that the friendship depicted here seems especially true to life? Do you find yourself choosing sides with either Liz or Sarabeth?
2. Why does Lauren attempt to kill herself? What are the immediate and the more suppressed causes? How does Lauren herself explain it?
3. Liz tells Brody that she feels completely guilty for Laurens suicide attempt. “I know, it sounds crazy,” she says, “but the point is: if it was your fault, then you werent powerlessyou werent at the mercy of stuff just happening.” To which Brody replies: “Youre always going to be at the mercy of stuff just happening, no matter what” [p. 293]. What different ways of looking at life do these two positions represent? To what extent are they “at the mercy of stuff just happening”?
4. Thinking back over her relationship with her daughter, Liz imagines herself “bowing to Lauren, acknowledging Lauren. Had she somehow failed to do that? She couldnt think of anything more important for a mother to do” [p. 127]. Why would nothing be more important than this kind of acknowledgment of ones child? Why does Liz choose the word “bowing”?
5. After Lauren has returned from the hospital, Liz admits to Lauren that she and Sarabeth are “having some problems.” After that, Lauren occasionally asks her mother about her relationship with Sarabeth. Do you think Lauren is intentionally pressuring Liz to talk to her? Do you think its Laurens place to pressure her mother about Sarabeth?
6. Liz and Sarabeth have a long history together. Do you think that, without Laurens attempted suicide, Liz and Sarabeth would have ended up in the same place anyway?
7. Why do you think Lauren is drawn to Sarabeth? Do you think it has more to do with Sarabeths experience with depression and suicide, or with Sarabeths knowledge of art and her less-conventional life? Or something else entirely?
8. Why doesnt Sarabeth call Liz immediately when she learns of Laurens suicide attempt? Is her reaction selfish or merely self-protective?
9. Why does Liz tell Sarabeth, “Im not your mother” [p. 226]? Is she justified in saying this? How does it affect Sarabeth, immediately and ultimately?
10. Brody describes Sarabeth as “five feet of chaos” [p. 278]. In what ways is this statement true of Sarabeth?
11. What is the effect of tragedythe suicide of Sarabeths mother and Laurens attempted suicideoccurring in such seemingly ordinary, and in Laurens case loving, families?
12. Near the end of the novel, after Joe has won at poker, he thinks: “The cards didnt really matter. What mattered was how you played. What mattered was your face” [p. 314]. In what ways might this apply to the lives of the characters in the novel?
13. How are Liz and Brody able to repair their marriage? Why does Laurens attempted suicide create such anger and distance between them?
14. What do you think about the hostility between Sarabeth and Brody? Do you think they would have gotten along better if not for their relationships with Liz?
15. How are Liz and Sarabeth able to restore their friendship? Why is the gift of the bench so important?
16. What is the turning point in Laurens recovery? What is it that really begins to restore her optimism and interest in life?
17. Songs Without Words, though much of it is concerned with suffering, depression and suicide, ends happily, with the restoration of Liz and Sarabeths friendship and Lauren choosing to embrace rather than hide from life. Why does this ending feel right? How does Packer keep the novel from achieving too easy a closure?
18. What does Songs Without Words reveal about both the strength and fragility of human relationships?