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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-12-13
- Reviewer: Staff
Packer's sterling collection is framed by two novellas. In the opener, "Walk for Mankind," teenager Richard Appleby describes his bittersweet relationship with Sasha Horowitz, a rebellious, risk-taking 14-year-old, who has a clandestine affair with a drug dealer. Sasha's behavior is a reaction to her controlling and hyper-charming father, an English professor who's spiraling downward professionally and personally. "Things Said or Done" is set three decades later, when Sasha, now 51 and divorced, has become Richard's caretaker, forced to deal with his self-destructive, narcissistic personality while recognizing the ways in which they are alike. Packer's talents are evident in these psychologically astute novellas, and also in the stories in between. "Molten" conveys a mother's grief over her adolescent son's senseless death; "Dwell Time" features a protagonist's happy second marriage—until her husband disappears. In the affecting "Her First Born," a new father finally understands his wife's attachment to the memory of her first child, who died. The only misstep is "Jump," whose lead character, a rich man's son who fakes an underprivileged background to work in a photocopy shop, lacks credibility. Packer (The Dive from Clausen's Pier) presents complex human relationships with unsentimental compassion. (Apr.)
Stories that convey authentic emotions
In her previous best-selling novels, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words, Ann Packer proved her agility at inhabiting people who live through unspeakable events: What happens when a restless young woman’s fiancé becomes a quadriplegic on a fun day at the lake? What happens when a model mom’s kids are her life, and then her daughter attempts suicide? These are complicated scenarios without easy resolution, but Packer’s characters are fully developed with emotions that feel authentic.
The stories in Swim Back to Me, Packer’s new collection, are equally powerful. They focus on situations that make us uncomfortable to varying degrees—from the disorienting feeling of misjudging a co-worker, to the adolescent recognition of being ditched by a friend, to the excruciating pain of losing a child.
Packer conveys the dark pleasure of a grieving mom lashing out at the woman inadvertently responsible for her son’s death—and how daring this act feels. (“Blood sloshed around inside Kathryn’s head. The skin around her mouth tingled. Time passed, a second or a minute or ten.”) She captures the precipice between the expectant joy and wariness of a first-time dad. She tracks the jarring sensation of a teen recognizing that a friend’s parent, and his own parents, have flaws.
Those disappointed that Packer chose to publish stories instead of another novel needn’t worry: The narratives in Swim Back to Me add up to a satisfying whole that will linger in the mind.