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Ann Packer
Swim Back to Me
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-400-04404-7
Publication Date: 04-05-2011
230 pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 05-01-2011

Index:  General Fiction

Fiction worth the time it takes to read it must be alive. As we read the words, the characters and places must come to life in our minds without our permission. Perhaps it sounds simple when it's stated this plainly, but the skill it takes to make this happen is anything but simple. In fact, it takes a great deal of talent to make fiction look simple and natural.

Ann Packer's stories and novels are the written equivalent of photographs we might find framed, sitting on someone's desk at work. They spring to life instantly, and in those portraits we find stories that are intricate, natural and compellingly real. The six stories in 'Swim Back to Me' are lives we might have led or might yet lead. The intimacy that Packer brings to her work instantly involves us as readers. Her stories bring her readers to life, and into lives not their own.

"Walk for Mankind," the novella that opens the collection, is set in Palo Alto of 1972, shortly before it began the transformation into what we now call Silicon Valley. Richard Appleby meets his new neighbor Sasha Horowitz in the first week of eighth grade. She introduces herself. She's smart, funny and appealing, and they quickly become friends. Both are children of men who teach at Stanford; Richard's father is stable but divorced, while Sasha's family is unkempt but together. As is often the case, Sasha, the girl, is more mature than Richard. At least, she thinks herself to be. In the course of hanging out and checking out the neighborhood, she meets a twenty-something young man hanging out at Stanford and ... things happen. Richard gets to watch her step into a life he can just about grasp but not join, not quite yet. He's not so happy about what he sees.

Packer's novella is gorgeously written and evocative. It creates that fall and the seasons that follow with perfectly balanced poignancy. There's a whole world to explore in these two families, and Packer knows how to evoke the emotions with minimum fuss and maximum impact. Her writing is so fine that we're swept away into the past, unprepared for the powerful plotting and complex characterization. She gives the world and her characters a nice rough edge that feels right.

'Swim Back to Me' takes its title from a song found in the following story, "Molten," about a housewife who spends her time upstairs in her son's room, listening to his music. This is a carefully layered story in which revelation becomes plot, and leads to actions that are understandable, regrettable and understandably regrettable. The bitterness that burns at the heart of the story lingers after you finish the words.

Carolee and Alejandro, the characters at the core of "Jump" have a more playful relationship; she's his manager at "Copy Copy," but when she gives him a lift, she finds out more than she anticipated. "Dwell Time" is a paradigm of economic storytelling; with Packer deftly creating the large family that results from two divorces and one marriage. Here, as in other stories, she works well creating characters who are not present in the story. Characterization in absentia is a smaller, but no less important part of "Her Firstborn," which also touches on themes found in "Molten," but in an unexpectedly sweet and playful manner driven by nuanced characterization. Packer's stories hang together in a nicely knit manner, even when they're not connected by common characters.

"Things Said or Done" is connected to "Walk for Mankind," as it finds one of the characters in that story, now fifty, confronting an aging parent at a family wedding. There's a wonderfully sweet and bitter tone here that is in perfect keeping with the story that begins the collection. The ties between the two stories, and the thematic ties between all the stories, lend 'Swim Back to Me' some of the feel of a novel. But most of that comes from Packer's ability to evoke life with language. Words, when she uses them, are anything but "mere words."

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