three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
By: 
Ann Packer
user_rating: 
0

A-Songs Without WordsAfter her mother committed suicide, Sarabeth spent her last years of high school at her best friend Liz’s house. Now in their 40s, the two northern Californian women couldn’t differ more. Liz, married to a good guy and a mother to Joe, 13, and a daughter, Lauren, 16, is satisfied with her suburban existence; Sarabeth lives in Berkeley, crafting lamp shades, staging open houses, engaging in inappropriate affairs—and looking to Liz for guidance in life. Life could remain as status quo, but Lauren’s downward spiral sets into motion a crisis that questions Liz’s parenting skills, summons up Sarabeth’s traumatic childhood, and cracks the foundation of the two women’s lifelong friendship.
Knopf. 322 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0375412816

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"What’s most impressive about Songs is Packer’s ability to set a story in the wealthy and beautiful suburbs of San Francisco and make her characters’ suffering authentic. … This is an excellent rendering of adolescent depression, female-style." Deirdre Donahue

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This time Packer is telling a messier, meandering story about family, friendship and depression. The startlingly pointed truths are still there, but the momentum is different. Where Dive hurtled its heroine from inexperience toward maturity, Songs is more of a meditation on the nature of maturity itself." Janice P. Nimura

Charlotte Observer 3 of 5 Stars
"If the story sags slightly under the uneven weight of five characters’ ruminations, much of the novel is moving. … Lauren acts on events in the present narrative, where the dangers are imminent, but Sarabeth, in contrast, seems maddeningly passive." Mindy Friddle

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"Sometimes whole sections seem like filler, as if this story should have been a novella." Sarah Willis

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Packer writes sensitive, quietly distressing fiction about ordinary people waylaid by misfortunes great and small. … Songs Without Words conveys the eerie sensation of having been re-gifted—we’re unwrapping the central struggle of [The Dive From Clausen’s Pier] in new packaging." Liesl Schillinger

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The psychology is skin-deep, but Packer writes about adult female friendship with a nuanced understanding of its emotional intensity. … Packer’s novel is something like those rooms Sarabeth decorates, all eccentricity removed so that they will suit anyone." Marisa Silver

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"After the keenly observed realism she demonstrated in her much more penetrating Dive From Clausen’s Pier, Ms. Packer this time treats pedestrian, domestic details about her characters strategically, as if they captured physical manifestations of interior currents. … Ms. Packer’s most intuitive point here is that mother-daughter dynamics and neediness linger throughout life, even among apparent peers, in ways that become sharper over time." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Ann Packer stunned critics with her debut novel, the acclaimed Dive From Clausen’s Pier (2002). Songs inevitably raised comparisons to this first novel’s exploration of how crises of untold proportions test love and lead to guilt, despair, and morally ambiguous actions. Critics agreed that Packer deftly unravels the emotional intensity that accompanies the love between two adult friends and offers shrewd insight into human behavior. However, Songs didn’t garner quite the same praise as Dive. A few critics cited stereotyped male characters, uneven third-person perspectives, and a predictable story line that gets bogged down in quotidian details. All reviewers, however, praised the characterization of Lauren—and her all-too-real teen anguish.