This novel is a Great Pretender. At first I thought it was going to be about a friendship between women who shared a childhood but took distinct paths in adulthood. Liz, from a stable family with loving parents, marries and has two kids; Sarabeth, her friend from across the street --- who came to live with Liz's family when her own mother killed herself and her father left town --- is a single freelancer who, after a year, is still mourning a failed affair with a married man.
Gradually, though, I realized that Ann Packer's true theme is darker. As Sarabeth says (with an odd, Yoda-like cadence) of two of her favorite novels, madame bovary and anna karenina, "Suicide, these books were about. Not adultery." SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, to my mind, is also about suicide, not friendship. Both Sarabeth and Lauren, Liz's teenaged daughter, hear the "distant music, familiar and sad" of longings that are impossible to articulate; both are subject to furious tears, days spent in bed, the lure of non-existence.
I don't think it is giving away any secrets to tell you that the main event of the book is Lauren's suicide attempt and the way that the family is changed by it. Liz and her husband, Cody, are devastated by guilt and pain; Sarabeth, meanwhile, is unmoored both by memories of Lorelei, her lost mother, and by Liz's sudden absence from her life. The two friends are strangely unable to connect over this crisis --- or perhaps not so strangely, because they are accustomed to a dynamic in which Sarabeth is almost like the family's second daughter. At one point Liz says angrily, "I'm not your mother." But later she acknowledges that Lorelei had been "some kind of not-mother, some kind of anti-mother" and that "it was almost criminal, that Sarabeth had been forced to do without."
The irony of this, of course, is that Liz, following the pattern of her own devoted mother, has paid every attention to her kids --- or so she thought --- and Lauren still falls into a near-fatal chasm of depression and self-loathing. Is Packer saying that mental states have a life of their own, or that parents can never entirely protect their kids?
Either way, SONGS WITHOUT WORDS is a book whose characters are divided as clearly as a two-lane highway. Liz, Brody and their son, Joe, are "normals" who have been blindsided by Lauren's suicide attempt and shocked into an altered state, less warm and fuzzy. Sarabeth and Lauren, in contrast, have always had to struggle for happiness, clarity and meaning; they must fight against a constant undertow of isolation and despair (Lauren's high school agonies are particularly vivid). Sarabeth doesn't toy with suicide --- her memories of Lorelei are too disturbing --- but she does succumb to a numbing retreat from reality; with no school to drop out of, she drops out of her own life. While I think Packer meant to give each side equal weight, for me Sarabeth and Lauren dominate the novel --- they are easily the more substantial, engaging characters. Liz is too earnest, even in her grief, to move me much, while Brody and Joe are too opaque.
One of the compelling things about THE DIVE FROM CLAUSEN'S PIER was the stark moral choice that confronted the heroine when her fiancé was confined to a wheelchair after a swimming accident. SONGS WITHOUT WORDS doesn't have that sharpness of focus, which is why, more than the earlier novel, it sometimes gets bogged down in the sheer density of prose. The characters' lengthy internal dialogues, peppered with rhetorical questions, attempt to achieve texture through the cumulative effect of many words rather than the dead-on rightness of a few. I think a stern editorial hand would have been useful to help the good "bones" of the book emerge more effectively.
On the other hand, the very generosity of Packer's vision --- the meticulous details of family life, adolescent crushes and professional subcultures (Brody and Sarabeth's jobs are described with care and intelligence) --- has a certain emotional power. It is a leisurely approach to storytelling, more like a 19th-century novel in some ways (classic fiction is a constant reference point for Sarabeth) than a 21st-century one. Absorbing rather than suspenseful, it draws us into its universe and persuades us that it is real.
Come to think of it, it was kind of interesting to read a book in which the central friendship is absent (for a good two-thirds of SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, communication between Sarabeth and Liz are stalled; they don't even speak on the phone). So often we assume that friends can survive anything without much mutual nurturing; Packer implies that these relationships are more fragile than we think. She also seems to suggest that friendship, at its best, gives us a sense of ourselves that is irreplaceable --- as important as the love we get from a spouse, child or parent, and somehow purer.
I don't think I'll let on whether Sarabeth and Liz find their happy ending. Read the book and find out for yourself.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011
Songs Without Words