Ann Packer's new novel centers around two childhood friends, Liz and Sarabeth, as they navigate the challenges of their lives as adults, confront loneliness and near tragedy, and test both the limits and the redemptive power of their friendship.
Songs Without Words is a novel about friendship and about family, but it is also very much about suicide. Sarabeth remarks that Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, which she is reading at a retirement home, are not so much about adultery as about suicide. Adultery is an issue, too, in Songs Without Words, as Sarabeth struggles to climb out of the wreckage of one adulterous affair and to avoid falling into another. But suicide is the mother lode in this novel, just as it is in Flaubert's and Tolstoy's. When Sarabeth's mother took her own life, which for Sarabeth was a "devastating relief," it deepened the bond between her and Liz. But decades later, when Liz's daughter tries to kill herself, it threatens to destroy their friendship. Sarabeth is overcome by her own pain, unable to rise above it enough to comfort Liz, and Liz is outraged by her friend's failure. A gulf opens between them that seems unbridgeable. And for Liz and her husband Brody, consumed by solitary guilt and anger at each other, their daughter's suicide attempt has deeply shaken the ground beneath their feet—why hadn't they seen it coming? why couldn't they stop it?—unsettling their marriage and dramatically altering their view of themselves and the solidity of life they'd created together.
Part of what makes Songs Without Words so deeply moving–and so terrifying–is its extraordinary level of realism, the way Packer captures both the most subtle and most dramatic emotional currents that spark human behavior. Reading Songs Without Words, one feels immersed not in fiction, but in the lives of real people. Liz and Brody and their children, Joe and Lauren, seem a typical American family, even in—or perhaps especially in—their difficulties with Joe's soccer games and Brody's long hours at work and Lauren's strange moods all representative of the kinds of problems familiar to many upper-middle class families. What Packer shows with such devastating effect is how fragile even the most seemingly normal families can be, how easily despair can well up to engulf someone like Lauren, who in a moment of self-hatred nearly severs herself from life. But, as much as the novel examines unflinchingly the nature of human suffering, it also affirms, in writing that is as vivid and emotionally compelling as any in contemporary American fiction, the healing power of friendship and of love.
Songs Without Words