Monday, November 24, 2014

Songs without Words, by Ann Packer

Sarabeth and Liz grew up across the street from one another in Palo Alto. When Sarabeth's chronically depressed mother committed suicide while she was in high school and her father decided to relocate to the East coast, Liz's family invited Sarabeth to live with them during her senior year. This kindness cemented a lifelong habit of Liz taking care of Sarabeth.

Liz, after all, had only ever wanted to be a mother, and her relationship with Sarabeth seems an extension of that role. By the time they are 40 (or thereabouts), Liz is married and has two teenage children--Joe and Lauren. She spends her days doing yoga, crafting, and caring for her family and Sarabeth. Sarabeth is still reeling, a year after her breakup with a married man. Her house is falling apart even though she works part time as a stager for homes on the real estate market. She also designs and makes what are apparently very interesting lampshades, selling them through a lamp shop owned by a man on whom she has a bit of a crush. Her crush is not noticeably more mature than Lauren's infatuation with a high school classmate--and the similarities between the two don't end there. Both are struggling with depression--but Liz seems more aware of Sarabeth's struggles than her daughter's.

Then a crisis in Liz's family sends Sarabeth reeling and threatens their friendship. Everyone struggles to heal themselves and recalibrate their relations--and I won't reveal whether they are successful in that effort.

Songs without Words gets off to a very slow start and, even after the crisis strikes, the story continues at a rather glacial pace. Despite the fact that Liz's husband Brody and son Joe get to narrate sections of the book, along with the three female "leads," they don't have the depth of the female characters, and various "subplots" having to do with them seem just to fizzle out (e.g., something odd seems to be going on at Brody's work, but nothing ever really happens). The most interesting parts of the book are the examination of an unequal friendship that is nonetheless important to both friends and the depiction of thinking disordered by depression. Some people may find those features outweigh the weaknesses, while others feel the opposite; I'm still making up my mind.

Favorite passages:
In randomness there lay a secret order, or so it was sometimes nice to think. [Sarabeth]

She was one of those people who seemed to regard busyness as a contest you could win. [Liz]

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