Thursday, June 9, 2011

Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer

In Swim Back to Me, Ann Packer presents six stories (one technically a novella), with the first and last effectively linked by shared characters. The book opens with "Walk for Mankind," a novella set among faculty children in 1970s Palo Alto. The story is narrated by an adult Richard Appleby, who was an eighth-grader living with his professor father at the time of the story. Professor Appleby seems to have little notion of what a 14-year-old's needs might be; meanwhile, when Richard visits his mother once a month in Oakland, she tries to expose him to "the real world" by taking him for walks in the ghetto. At school, Richard is intrigued by the new girl, Sasha Horowitz, who not only befriends him but invites him into her family, which to Richard seems like the ideal two-parent, two-child lively unit. As the year progresses, however, Richard's feelings toward Sasha become romantic; meanwhile, she has become involved with a 25-year-old drug dealer. This relationship interferes with Richard and Sasha's friendship, but he is nonetheless devastated when Stanford does not ask Mr. Horowitz to stay on for the next school year. Clearly, this year in his life has shaped Richard's life.

The book's final story takes us into Sasha's family more than 30 years later. The family--parents long since divorced and Sasha herself married and divorced--has gathered for her brother's late-in-life wedding to a much younger woman. Sasha has become the caretaker for her difficult father, a fact that grieves her mother Joanie but that Sasha accepts. When Joanie mentions that Richard's sadness that year in Palo Alto prevented her from leaving her husband sooner, Sasha remembers her wildness that year--totally out of character for her either before or after--but she has forgotten Richard. Given the obvious importance she played in Richard's memory, this is a shocking reminder that even a close relationship may mean totally different things to the people involved.

I was also moved by three of the four self-contained stories. "Molten" is the story of a bereaved mother's attempt to connect with her dead son through his favorite music. In "Dwell Time," a woman happily muses about her new marriage and blended family--until her new husband does not come home. As she learns what has happened, she ponders what to do when he does return. "Her Firstborn" is told from the perspective of an expectant first-time father, whose wife (in a previous marriage) had a baby boy who died at five months. As he tries to protect her from the questions and comments he thinks would wound her, he worries about why she wants their new baby to wear the dead baby's clothes.

Although I found the story "Jump Time" less effective, I highly recommend this collection. Packer's characters are multidimensional; they inhabit families, relationships, and places with absolute authenticity; and they deal with pain and loss in ways as variable as we ourselves might.

Favorite passages:
Just two weeks and he's an expert on Danny, on his Dannyness, each day placing into an infinitely expandable container every new thing he knows to be true about his baby. He thinks of what he knows about the dead baby--about Jasper--and it's next to nothing: he liked to be flown through the air like an airplane, he loved to have his father tickle his toes. Dean's had it all wrong: it isn't that Lise had a baby who died, but rather that she had a baby, who died. He looks at her, creases around her eyes as she smiles at Danny, and he feels a little space open up in his mind, for all she can tell him about her first son.

"We're so glad you're here," he says, and I think I'm not losing a brother, he's losing a personal pronoun.

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