Sun, Sep 09, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Life is like a seesaw, not a box of chocolates

Ann Packer's new book meanders through suburban analogies and rhetorical questions, but never really goes anywhere. Tedium is the order of the day


Songs Without Words

By Ann Packer
322 pages
Alfred A. Knopf

The two close female friends in Ann Packer's ladylike, man-proof new novel spend 300-odd pages exploring the nuances of their lifelong bond. If this sounds like an interesting story, bear in mind that any synopsis will make this book appear better than its full, sprawling version turns out to be. Synopses emphasize plots, themes and dramatic tensions. They do not dawdle through descriptions of how cheese rolls can be "such a reliable pleasure," how raisin-bran cookies have a "branny, raisiny" nature or how the essence of soccer is "the blunt, running, back and forth of the game."

But Songs Without Words has time for a lot of bland, homey flourishes. And it relies upon them heavily to express how life is like a seesaw, that thing in playgrounds upon which children ride up or down. After the keenly observed realism she demonstrated in her much more penetrating Dive From Clausen's Pier, Packer this time treats pedestrian, domestic details about her characters strategically, as if they captured physical manifestations of interior currents. Strategically, this succeeds only in giving Songs Without Words a pedestrian spirit.

Meet Liz and Sarabeth, two women who live in the Bay Area and are as different as their names. Liz is down to earth and practical, while Sarabeth is creative and quirky. Sarabeth is also single and uneasy about her life in Berkeley, whereas Liz is firmly settled in suburban bliss. Liz and her husband, Brody, have the kind of marriage in which "maybe I'll just skip my pajamas tonight" might be a hot-blooded remark from either of them.

Liz and Brody also have two children, Lauren and Joe. Lauren is bursting with dangerous angst in ways that make her seem to have wandered in from an explosively timely Jodi Picoult novel, then stopped ticking. Lauren is showing signs of distress, including an embarrassing high school crush and anxiety about her grades. She goes to the kind of school where girls say things like: "Want some dry-roasted edamame? They're rich in isoflavones." Something is making Lauren feel inadequate in this environment.

But Liz is awfully busy. She thinks about crafts and yoga and Sarabeth and what's for dinner, not really noticing her daughter's situation. Sooner or later this kind of setup might lead the book into dark waters if it were actually going anywhere. But the main effect of Lauren's malaise is to provoke frissons of discord between Sarabeth and Liz.

In a novel that wishfully invokes Mrs. Dalloway, Anna Karenina, the paintings of Alex Katz and other touchstones of subtle bourgeois dissatisfaction, resentments between the two friends begin to emerge. As the prologue to Songs Without Words explains, Sarabeth grew up in Liz's family after her own mother's suicide. And the idea of motherhood taps into her deepest longings. She depends on Liz not only for sisterly intimacy but also for a kind of support that is not in the normal range of adult friendship.

Or is it? 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. At her most genuinely astute, Liz thinks about "how knowledge accumulated in layers rather than linearly, how you learned the same things over and over, but differently each time, more deeply."

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