Ann Packer has always had a knack for writing compelling stories about loss — whether it be death, divorce or dreams. More often than not, her characters are teens and adolescents, people already in some sort of emotional upheaval when loss strikes.
And in her latest book, she explores the theme to new and interesting conclusions. She doesn't do it just once because Swim Back To Me is not a novel proper. It's a collection of two novellas (connected by a single thread) and four short stories.
Walk For Mankind sets an unsettling tone for Swim Back To Me.
The first, a novella, is Walk For Mankind. Set in 1972, Richard, a shy, somewhat nerdy adolescent, meets Sasha, the oddly compelling new girl on the bus. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that finds them nearly inseparable outside of school.
Richard’s mother has recently left the family, leaving Richard’s Stanford professor father to try to balance his usually singular focus on work while raising his son. It leaves the door open for Richard to discover a whole new world in Sasha and her family.
Her dad, Dan, is also a professor who landed at Stanford after being denied tenure at Yale. He is a narcissist, but one who actually adores his children and his wife, even if sometimes he drives them crazy.
The novella takes its name from the Walk For Mankind, a 20-mile walk around Palo Alto in which Richard and Sasha are walking to raise money for the underprivileged. In gathering pledges, they run into the wrong crowd. Sasha has her head turned by drugs and a guy in his 20s.
This experience cause an irreparable rift in Sasha and Richard’s friendship. And their story unravels until Sasha and her family move back to Connecticut.
The balance swings from loss to labels.
Molten is the story of Kathryn, a mother who may never come to grips with the death of her teenage son, Ben. He had been killed by a train as he saved the life of a little boy who wandered into its path. The little boy lived, but Ben wasn’t so lucky.
Ever since, Kathryn has neglected her husband and daughter, both also grieving in their own ways. To cope with her grief, Kathryn has turned to listening to Ben’s beloved record and CD collection, hoping to find something in the music or perhaps use it as a way to connect with Ben again on some level.
Jump changes things up with 30-year-old Carolee, a woman who reluctantly accepts a ride from Alejandro, a young Latino co-worker who talks, dresses and acts like he is from an economically challenged part of town. When Alejandro stops at home, Carolee is stunned to learn that his family is very affluent and that Alejandro’s accent is nothing more than a put on. She discovers he is not who she thought he was after all.
The next short story, Dwell Time, is the most suspenseful. It's about Laura and Matt, a couple who recently marred, creating a blended family of five kids.
Matt is articulate, steady, reliable, kind, and prompt. And it is because of his unfailing promptness that Laura senses something is wrong when he doesn’t show up for dinner. He disappears. And soon after Laura realizes that she never knew Matt at all.
In the last short, Her Firstborn, Packer piles on the sadness and tension about a couple who are about to have a baby. Dean is thrilled at the prospect of being a first-time dad. Lise is happy too, but the impending birth reminds her of her firstborn, who died of SIDS at the age of five months.
It’s something Lise experienced with her first husband, and something that she cannot fully share with Dean. He is overjoyed about the new baby, but is uneasy about completely sharing his joy because of the unresolved “presence” of the baby who died.
Packer closes the book just like she opens it. Things Said Or Done takes her book full circle as Sasha and Dan (from the first novella, Walk for Mankind) attend her brother's wedding. While Richard seems long forgotten, the situation is not.
Sasha wasn't spared the anguish of a broken home after all. Her mother eventually left Dan when Sasha was still a teen. However, her mother also decides to attend Peter's wedding. While she has moved beyond Dan’s needling and need to be the center of attention, she regrets having relinquished the responsibility of Sasha taking on the role of "caregiver" to her former husband.
Ann Packer and her relentless pen for detail.
Packer has an eye for detail and that is what makes her stand out an author. She knows her characters and lets anyone who reads her work know them too. The writing here is honest and strong, perhaps her best work or at least as great as her best-selling novel, The Dive From Clausen's Pier.
Of all the stories, Walk For Mankind, Dwell Time, and Her Firstborn are by far the strongest. Things Said And Done feels too heavy in places. It might have worked better as a short story rather than a novella. But Parker still exhibits her strength as a literary drama writer shines in each story.
Swim Back To Me Glides In With A 7.4 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Known for keeping her writing close to home, Packer was born and raised in Stanford, Calif., right near Stanford University. Her parents were both professors, which makes it easier for Parker to pepper her stories with people tied to academia. Nowadays, she lives with her family in San Carlos, near San Francisco.
Swim Back to Me is available at Amazon. The collection is also listed in iBooks, and Random House has already released the audiobook, with Packer narrating. Barnes & Noble also carries the book.
This review is based on an advanced proof copy from Random House.