Bookended by two novellas, Ann Packer's new collection of stories is a tour de force that mines the emotional terrain of parenthood, even (maybe especially) in scenes that appear to be about love and lust.
A confession: I did not connect with Packer's debut novel, "The Dive From Clausen's Pier," finding its extended passages about the protagonist's sewing cloying and didactic. Yet here, Packer's writing reminded me of her careful descriptions of working with slippery charmeuse and other fine fabrics as she carefully unfolds narratives, showing us the rough selvages that connect one life to another. Even in the least successful story, "Jump," the reader sees that Packer's knowledge of human nature is sure: "She'd turn thirty in less than a month, and what a good time that was going to be. Her mom kept saying they'd go out somewhere really nice, just the two of them, like that was the solution and not the problem."
"Walk for Mankind" and "Things Said or Done" are the connected stories that begin and end "Swim Back to Me." Told from two different perspectives and set decades apart, together they form the tale of Richard Appleby and Sasha Horowitz, who can't quite connect but are both spellbound by Sasha's father, Daniel. In "Walk for Mankind," Richard finds in the iconoclastic red-headed Dan a father figure he considers more worthy of his attentions than his own careful, quiet divorced dad. While Richard does not actually walk onstage in "Things Said or Done," Sasha's middle-aged narration of what it's like to turn caregiver to a parent has everything to do with why she has had her particular path through life: "Is this what I do with my parents? Want what I can't have and then once I can have it, stop wanting it?"
Each story has a surprise in it, from the one that contains the collection's title, to the one that rests as lightly as dandelion fluff on the placement of a comma, to the one that takes a bit of jargon and makes it at once utterly familiar and utterly cruel. These descriptions encompass, but do not necessarily match respectively with, these plots: A couple await the birth of their first child while living with the aching hole of an earlier loss, a mother finds a lonely way to mourn her teenage son's death, and a woman discovers that her new marriage comes with an unexpected burden.
Packer notes in her Acknowledgements that these stories (two of which are designated as "For" someone else) were written over the course of many years, which accounts for their varied lengths and subjects, but not entirely for their power and grace. With this collection, Ann Packer takes her place among today's best authors of literary fiction.
Bethanne Patrick blogs and tweets as the Book Maven.