When best friends Liz and Sarabeth were sixteen-years-old, Sarabeth’s severely depressed mother committed suicide. In the aftermath of her mother’s action, Sarabeth moves in with Liz’s family and her father moves away to Baltimore — a preëmptive strike, according to Sarabeth’s psychologist. Fast forward a few decades and Liz comes home from getting coffee one morning to find her own sixteen-year-old daughter, Lauren, has attempted suicide when an infatuation doesn’t lead to the relationship she craves. The attempt rocks Liz’s faith in her role as mother, in her relationship with her daughter, and in her relationship with her husband. What’s worse, according to Packer, is the attempt drives a wedge between Sarabeth and Liz’s friendship.
I read this book in three chunks — before heading out to see “Avatar” one night, on the way to the slopes the next morning, and twelve hours later before dinner — and that is not the way to read Packer’s novel. The conflict between Sarabeth and Liz relies heavily on the reader understanding both character’s reasoning and feelings, but I found that difficult to do when I didn’t read the novel in one sitting. For example, when I picked the novel up for a second time, I knew why Sarabeth and Liz weren’t talking but I wasn’t sympathetic to Sarabeth at all because the emotional ties just weren’t there anymore. And from that moment on, I could no longer connect with Sarabeth; most of what happened to her in the book distracted from those characters who interested me, namely Liz and Lauren.
On the one hand, Ann Packer’s writing is jam-packed with details and interesting observations; she clearly knows the Bay Area. On the other, there are so many cultural references that if you are not from the Bay Area, you might get lost. When Liz is traveling on a certain highway, you’re expected to know that means she’s avoiding the area of town where Sarabeth lives. It could go either way.
Her presentation of depression’s impact and how it manifests was the strongest part of Songs Without Words, but Packer’s insistence on focusing on Sarabeth and Liz’s friendship seemed wrong almost. Like it was skewing the impact of everything else her novel was saying. I don’t want to say I didn’t enjoy this novel because there certainly were parts and pieces that I did maybe because it reminded me of something Jodi Picoult would write) but, as I said, the focus on a poor friendship ruined it for me.
- Packer, Ann. Songs Without Words. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2007. Print. 369 pgs. ISBN: 9780375727177. Source: PaperBackSwap.