We gave it a B
Ann Packer knows how to hook a reader. Four pages into her first novel, a 23-year-old boy dives into shallow water, crushing his neck and spine. He wakes up four weeks later a quadriplegic. Before the accident, his fiancee had already been second-guessing her fixed Midwestern future. With his helplessness assured and her flight instincts charged, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier hinges on one rich question: ”How much do we owe the people we love?”
Carrie and Mike met at 14, were voted cutest couple at their Madison, Wis., high school, went to the same local university, finished one another’s thoughts, hooked up their families for holiday dinners. But Carrie is itchy, tired of thinking of ”the list of things I loved about him, in case I forgot.”
Packer does a fine job describing the claustrophobic atmosphere that can cloak a hometown. The familiar collegiate strip of Madison, with its ”boys in gigantic jeans cut off below the knee; girls in…tops and dresses that revealed the shoulder straps of black or light blue lingerie.” The friends who, five years later, still speak endlessly of high school. The limited Friday-night options, and the boredom that leads to beer consumption.
It’s to Packer’s credit that her portrait, while on target, isn’t a sneering one. And Mike, while dealt the blow of paralysis, is treated with similar respect. Unashamed of his small-town fantasies, he remains the moral center of the book. Mature and brave, his character never careens into an emasculated touchy-feely triumph zone. When Carrie and his family tiptoe around his broken body, murmuring words of encouragement and assistance, Mike, angry and irritated, yells, ”Stop! Asking me! What! I! Want!…Why do people keep asking me what I want? I want to walk out of here.”
Mike is already a grown-up, so The Dive From Clausen’s Pier is really Carrie’s coming-of-age story. ”Sometimes sitting there with him I felt like I was watching myself sitting there with him. Like: Look at her, she’s doing the right thing. I felt so distant.” Sure, the poor girl needs a slap every now and then to knock her out of that self-absorbed shell, but she remains a sympathetic character throughout those early strained hospital visits and her escape to a more anonymous life in New York City.
If only Packer had more confidence in her reader, whom she hand-holds through too many of her novel’s metaphors. When guilt gets the best of Carrie, she turns to her sewing machine and the lure of design. ”What was it about fashion?…It was less about beauty than about transformation. Who would I be in a turquoise paisley slip dress and beaded sandals?” On the significance of names: ”Carrie as in carry…except I guess it’s not a canoe you’ll be carrying.” Her boyfriend in New York, cynical and withdrawn (and, despite the hot sex scenes, one of the more irritating characters in recent fiction), is named Kilroy. When the big Big Apple section grows wearisome, and it will, rest assured that a visit back home to Madison is in order.
This is a fast, absorbing read, a bold first attempt from an author best known for some award-winning short stories in the early ’90s. Despite her book’s occasional strolls into schmaltzville, Packer is talented, and has a compelling back story to boot. (Press material from the Knopf publicity department reveals that the author’s father was partially paralyzed, an intimate experience that may explain why Mike is by far her most vividly drawn character, and why it is he and not Carrie who begins and ends the book.) She’s written a first novel whose subject easily transcends the page and all but demands teary conversations of struggle and triumph between audience guests. With the Today show’s book club still months away, one can almost hear the whimpers of Packer’s publicity team: Oprah, you would have loved this book. You would have been perfect together. Dammit, you owed us. B