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So we meet again

Songs Without Words A Novel Ann Packer Alfred A. Knopf: 322 pp., $24.95

September 02, 2007|Marisa Silver | Marisa Silver is author of the short story collection "Babe in Paradise" and the novel "No Direction Home." Her new novel, "The God of War," will be published next year.

FOR her follow-up to the bestselling "The Dive From Clausen's Pier," Ann Packer treats familiar themes of love, loyalty and betrayal. However, in "Songs Without Words," she concerns herself not with romantic love but with the equally stormy issue of love between adult female friends. The drama follows an arc similar to that of her earlier work: A relationship suffers nearly irreparable damage when a cataclysmic event occurs that uncovers fissures between (in this case) friends.

Sarabeth and Liz have been best friends since childhood, having grown up across the street from each other. When Sarabeth's mother committed suicide, her father moved out of town, away from the scene of the tragedy. Sarabeth, in her senior year of high school, chose to stay. She moved in with Liz's family, who cared for her during that tumultuous year of abandonment.

Now the women are in their 40s and living across San Francisco Bay from each other, Liz in a comfortable suburban enclave, Sarabeth in the more earthy Berkeley. They have maintained their friendship and see each other frequently. Sarabeth keeps abreast of Liz's children's doings; Liz keeps tabs on Sarabeth's doomed romances (she seems exclusively attracted to married men who will eventually abandon her).

The psychology is skin-deep, but Packer writes about adult female friendship with a nuanced understanding of its emotional intensity. A friendship that manages to persist over decades often rests comfortably on its laurels, while work, family and other distractions win their bids for attention. Yet the foundation of that friendship, which can be equal parts devotion and need, is frangible. Neither Sarabeth nor Liz is inclined to give up the connection or explore it more deeply, so the knotty feelings that underlie it remain hidden.

Packer sets up somewhat obvious opposites in her characters. Liz, blond and conventionally pretty, has found satisfaction in nurturing her family. Even as she realizes that her desire to hop to and serve them is a bit retrograde, she relishes it. Hers is the life of soccer games, yoga class and occasional yet fulfilling sex with Brody, her very decent husband. She enjoys the "sisterhood of eye rolling and head shaking and sighing over the helplessness of husbands" she has joined; she finds comfort in her life's predictability. Sarabeth, tiny of frame and more emotionally fragile, has a less settled existence. She works as a "home stager" for a real estate agent -- she redecorates houses so that they will appeal to buyers, stripping out idiosyncratic furnishings in favor of nonthreatening items intended to satisfy everyone. In her spare time, she makes whimsical lampshades. She lives alone and pines for the married man from whom she split a year earlier. Where Liz has it all together, Sarabeth seems at loose ends.

All this changes when Liz's teenage daughter, Lauren, tries to kill herself. Although Liz and Brody were aware of their daughter's depression, they are blindsided by this dramatic call for help. The suicide attempt throws the family into disarray. Liz and Brody are beset by guilt, and their anger with themselves turns outward, toward each other. The friendship between Sarabeth and Liz is delivered a huge blow when Sarabeth, learning of the crisis, is initially unable to reach out to her friend. Lauren's suicide attempt brings up powerful feelings for Sarabeth, having to do with her mother's death. Latent issues of abandonment rise to the fore, and she slides into her own depression, cutting herself off not just from Liz but also from nearly everything else in her life. Her belated attempts to contact Liz are rebuffed by her hurt and angry friend. Packer presents a signal truth of friendship: We don't always reveal our best selves at times of crises, and we often let down those dearest to us. We might not believe ourselves capable of such selfishness, but of course all of us are.

Packer interweaves the various points of view. We follow Lauren into the psychiatric hospital, where she inches toward recovery along with a standard cast of troubled teenagers. We watch Liz and Brody fall away from each other and struggle to come back, and we follow Sarabeth's downward spiral. One of Packer's strengths as a writer is her ability to subtly shift tone and voice to bring us into the interior of very different characters. The narrative moves with ease.

Her characters' trajectories are predictable, but Packer seems to be using predictability as a kind of narrative strategy. She layers her novel with the mundane details of daily life -- the meals consumed, the specialty stores shopped at, the freeways taken. Perhaps she is searching for the poetry of her characters' lives in these recognizable details, but more often than not, the story gets bogged down by information that seems intended to suggest the contemporary setting instead of illuminating the characters' lives and emotions.

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