SWIM BACK TO ME by Ann Packer

Book Quote:

“If it did happen again, if his and Lise’s baby died, too, would they survive? Would their marriage? The thing is, there’s no telling. From where he sits, less than a month away from fatherhood, he sees that what they’ve done together acknowledges the possibility of its own undoing: that what there is to gain is exactly equal to what there is to lose.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (MAY 9, 2011)

Ann Packer’s newest book, Swim Back to Me, is comprised of a novella and five short stories. They are all “emotionally searing stories” dealing with issues of intimacy, misunderstandings that cause distancing, betrayals, and the problems that people have with understanding and knowing one another. Each story is strong and brilliant.

“Walk for Mankind,” the novella in this collection, just sings. It is a coming of age story but to just describe it as that would be like saying it’s a beautiful day and to leave out what makes it beautiful: the smell of the greenery, the feel of a breeze, the sensation of the the sun on your skin and the overall feeling of beauty and abundance inspired by being part of this world.

The novella takes place in 1972 Palo Alto, California close to the Stanford campus. It is told from fifty-year old Richard’s memories of his fourteenth summer. Sasha and Richard are both fourteen years old and are friends, the kind of friends who play scrabble, go to the beach, ride bikes together and play truth and dare. They have fun. Sasha is the more dominant one in the relationship and she has a real independent and wild streak to her that Richard lacks. Sasha decides that she and Richard should do a 20-mile Walk for Mankind and raise so much money that they are “heroes” of a sort. Just before the walk, Sasha meets Cal and begins a sexual relationship with him. Since Cal is a drug dealer, pot also enters the picture. Sasha starts smoking a lot of weed and Richard soon embraces it as well. Pot becomes a big deal for Richard as he “laughs the ocean-wave laughter of the stoned, up and down and down and up, and it was incredibly intense and at the same time locked away from the real world, safe behind a wall of glass.”

Richard loves to go to Sasha’s house where her free-wheeling parents are fun and exuberant. Richard lives with his stodgy father, a history professor, and a housekeeper. His mother left them ten months ago to “find herself” and Richard sees her once a month for a weekend. Richard’s relationship with his father is distant and he loves Sasha’s family as much as being with Sasha. There comes a time in their relationship, however, when sexuality enters and they begin to distance, not understanding one another and their new roles.

The underlying theme of this beautiful novella is the distance and pursuit of two adolescents who do not know themselves or each other and are trying to navigate the world of intimacy. This quickly turns into perceived betrayals which distance the two friends, leaving them in a place of anomie. They learn to perceive the treacheries, dreams and misfortunes that comprise life, songs in a dissonant key.

In “Things Said and Done” Sasha’s family is revisited during the festivities of her brother’s marriage to a woman much younger than him. Her parents are long divorced and Sasha has come to realize that her father is a narcissist. She is his emotional caretaker. She has left her wildness behind her and lives a staid life as an academic.

In “Molten” a mother grieves the death of her teen-aged son. “Her body had become a scale, a device for measuring grief.” She has lost her grasp on life and tries to relive her son’s days by listening to his rock music non-stop and finding meaning in the music and instrumentation he once listened to. She has moved away from her family and at a bereavement group “she felt molten. She didn’t want friends, compassionate or otherwise. She wanted to scream in a padded room, scratch her arms till they bled.”

“Jump” is a story about a shift supervisor at a copy store who has a urinary tract infection. Her car won’t start and a co-worker drives her home. On the drive she finds out he is not who she thought he was and that they are both trying to escape from certain parts of their lives without success.

In “Dwell Time,” a newly married woman has to deal with her husband’s habit of just disappearing for days at a time, something he did in his first marriage but she did not know about. Should she leave him or can she find a way to make this marriage work? Interestingly, the term dwell time “is how long soldiers have between deployments.” Could her husband think of their marriage as a war zone, and these disappearances be his way to find peace?

“The Firstborn” is a poignant story of a woman whose firstborn son died at five months from crib death. This destroyed her marriage. She is remarried now, pregnant and about to give birth to a child. The couple’s fears and hopes are examined, along with her memories of her firstborn.

I am a lover of short stories to begin with, but I gather light when I read something as engaging and brilliant as this collection. Ann Packer has matured so much in her writing since The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. She is well on her way to becoming a master.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 21 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (April 5, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Songs Without Words

The Dive From Clausen’s Pier


May 9, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: California, Coming-of-Age, Literary, Reading Guide, Short Stories

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