October 2007

fiction

Songs Without Words by Ann Packer

Ann Packer’s Songs Without Words -- the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed The Dive From Clausen’s Pier -- maintains the same attention to detail and the same prosaic strength, though this time, the moral predicament appears to have fallen flat.  Rather than thrust the reader into a thought-provoking moral dilemma as she’s done before, this time, we are asked to sit quietly through a situation that feels somewhat trite and lacking the necessary risks.  

Songs Without Words sets out to examine the intricacies of two lifelong friends -- Liz and Sarabeth -- who, as teenagers, become inextricably linked when Sarabeth’s mother commits suicide. The prologue offers the only real-time glimpse of their past, while the rest of the novel is devoted to the aftershocks of this event and its echoes in their futures.

While Liz goes on to marry and raise two children -- Lauren, a high schooler, and Joe, the younger brother soccer star -- Sarabeth finds her life meandering, without purpose, and in need of some direction. Throughout their transformations from adolescence to adulthood, the women remain close -- often meeting for dinners -- though they are brought even closer by Liz’s daughter’s unexpected suicide attempt.

As Liz and her family attempt to make sense of the act, Sarabeth is unsure how to respond. Having lost her mother to suicide, she questions her own role in the situation. What could she have done to help prevent it? What can she do now to make it better?

Throughout the book, Liz and Sarabeth rely on each other as confidants, though midway through Liz decides that, “She’d have been a better mother to Lauren if she hadn’t spent so much time trying to be a good one to Sarabeth.” This resentment complicates their friendship, and nearly 70 pages are dedicated to the return to normalcy between these lost friends. The reader, however, often feels as lost as the female characters in the novel. We are left to follow a spinning compass needle in which every direction seems as good as any other. This “lack of direction” is omnipresent, and though the author shifts within the different character’s viewpoints in order to give us a more expansive view of the effects of a suicide attempt on a family, we often question what logic went into the decision-making process as to who says what when.   

Undoubtedly, this is a female book primarily aimed at a female audience, and for this reason, I am the odd man out. Yet readers still expect the male characters of the novel -- particularly Liz’s husband, Brody, and their son, Joe -- to be fully developed rather than relegated to minor roles, downplaying the effect of the situation on both father and brother. The male perspectives often function as rare opportunities to glimpse the situation through unique eyes, though the males are swiftly given a backseat to the struggles of Liz and Sarabeth.

While the “grieving mother” motif is nothing new to literature, Packer’s reexamination of the role of friendship is one theme certainly worth reading for. In the final pages of the book, Liz issues a peace offering to Sarabeth in order to reclaim the friendship, and after being thanked, Liz responds, “What are friends for?” This question is later called “philosophical,” and quite skillfully, Packer leads her characters (as well as the reader) to pursue this rhetorical question. What, really, are friends for? And in particular, what are friends for in times of crisis?

The character of Lauren is the most interesting of all of them, though Packer often parlays around her, preferring to focus on the pain she has caused rather than Lauren herself. But in some ways, pain becomes a character unto itself. Throughout the book, we cannot help but read for it, watch how it functions, and position ourselves in the role of the friend, asking ourselves what we might do to help others overcome it. 

Song Without Words by Ann Packer
Knopf
ISBN: 0375412816
258 pages