Fan’s of Ann Packer’s acclaimed “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” and “Songs Without Words” won’t be disappointed by the novella and short stories in “Swim Back to Me.” Packer has once again proven herself adept at understanding family, both the love that binds them and the tragedies that threaten to pull them apart.
The stories in ‘Swim Back to Me” are bookmarked by a linked novella, “Walk for Mankind,” and a short story, “Things Said Or Done.” In the former, we meet Richard Appleby the summer after his mother abandons the family, the same summer he meets his first love, Sasha Horowitz. Richard and Sasha’s friendship begins innocently enough: they spend their days riding bikes, taking trips to the beach, pledging money from neighbors for the Walk for Mankind. Where Richard is quiet, careful and awkward, Sasha is fierce and confident, something Richard describes as “not altogether pleasant that was entirely hers, like a back note of pepper in a chocolate dessert.” That summer, Sasha begins to explore drugs and her sexuality. While Richard eventually participates, he still falls light years behind Sasha, who is seemingly always at the forefront, dazzling her way to new experiences alone.
It seems tragic then to reach the final story of the book, “Things Said Or Done,” where we reunite with Sasha thirty-five years later during her younger brother’s wedding weekend and discover much of Sasha’s ferocity diminished. Her parents have divorced, and while the story is carried by Sasha’s struggle to maintain civility between them, it is clear that the once bright young girl, so overwrought with the possibilities of her own life, has become a middle-aged woman who is lonely, discouraged, resigned.
The stories tucked between these wrestle with the moral and spiritual implications of death, divorce and betrayal. A mother finds solace in obsessively listening to her deceased son’s music collection; a father-to-be doesn’t know how to celebrate the impending birth of his first child while his wife still grieves the crib death of her first child from a previous marriage; a woman is forced to come to terms with the fact that her husband isn’t who she thought he was.
Consistently, Packer’s narration is swift and sharp, her language bare, rarely distracting from the story. She seems possessive of her characters, so careful is she in crafting their lives and psyches, lest they be misunderstood. The result is a collection of stories that are compassionate, wise and satisfying. An excellent book from a writer who has yet to disappoint. (Naomi Huffman)
“Swim Back to Me”
By Ann Packer
Knopf, 225 pages, $24.95