Reading an Ann Packer book is like contemplating a pair of pictures and trying to spot the differences. While her writing often deals in well-rendered cataclysmic events, she really excels in illustrating the aftermaths, the readjustments people make after facing something awful. Packer's 2002 debut, The Dive From Clausen's Pier, zeroes in on the anguish of a young woman whose fiancé is paralyzed in a swimming accident; her new book, Songs Without Words, successfully expands her reach to delve into the minds of several people affected by a single tragedy.
Childhood friends Liz and Sarabeth live contrasting lives on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay. Liz is a happily married mother to two teenagers, while Sarabeth is a "partial stager," decorating houses about to go on sale and making lampshades for the attractive (but married) owner of a furniture store. When Liz's daughter Lauren attempts suicide, Liz becomes obsessed with her daughter's recovery, and finding out how she became so unwell. She turns to Sarabeth for solace, but her best friend is plunged into her own depression, remembering the summer she was Lauren's age, when her own mother unexpectedly killed herself.
Packer's narrative continually dips in and out of characters' heads, sometimes reading conflicting thoughts stemming from the same conversation—a trick which might have been jarring in the hands of a less skilled writer. (The only character she doesn't get into is Joe, Liz's 13-year-old son, but the book doesn't suffer for that.) More crucially, the internal views let readers experience Liz and Sarabeth's thoughts in the same unsympathetic framework, as the once-close friends drift apart on their separate trails of guilt and fury, unable to relate to each other on the grounds they've been unconsciously treading for years.
Still, Packer does her most careful, moving work in her portrait of Lauren, the object of Liz's guilt and Sarabeth's memory. Lauren's simultaneously stubborn and sad interior narrative exists not to offer a pat absolution of the adults in her life, but to provide the perspective Clausen's Pier was missing. Lauren's own re-evaluation of her actions and feelings becomes a keen counterpoint to those around her, even if only the readers can know it.