The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann PackerA riveting novel about loyalty and self-knowledge, and the conflict between who we want to be to others and who we must be for ourselves.

Carrie Bell has lived in all her life. She’s had the same best friend, the same good relationship with her mother, the same boyfriend, Mike, now her fiancé, for as long as anyone can remember. It’s with real surprise she finds that, at age twenty-three, her life has begun to feel suffocating. She longs for a change, an upheaval, for a chance to begin again.

That chance is granted to her, terribly, when Mike is injured in an accident. Now Carrie has to question everything she thought she knew about herself and the meaning of home. She must ask: How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or of weakness to walk away from someone in need?

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier reminds us how precarious our lives are and how quickly they can be divided into before and after, whether by random accident or by the force of our own desires. It begins with a disaster that could happen, out of the blue, in anybody’s life, and it forces us to ask how we would bear up in the face of tragedy and what we know, or think we know, about our deepest allegiances. Elegantly written and ferociously paced, emotionally nuanced and morally complex, The Dive from Clausen’s Pie marks the emergence of a prodigiously gifted new novelist.

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier tells the story of small-town girl Carrie’s struggle to break free from expectations, both hers and other people’s. She doesn’t have the courage to leave her boyfriend/fiance, Mike Mayer, so she instead acts cold and distant. Poor Mike also struggles but for a different reason: he wants to regain what he and Carrie have lost before they are forced to actually acknowledge its presence. This is what leads him to jump off Clausen’s Pier and break his neck, rendering him a quadriplegic. Carrie, naturally, is filled with guilt (but not necessarily tears as the novel uses countless pages to describe Carrie’s lack of tears) as she knows very well that it’s her emotional distance that caused Mike to jump off the pier. Tensions arise between Carrie & her friends and Carrie & Mike’s family, who are aware that she is pulling away from Mike, and had in fact been pulling away from him before the accident occurred. Unable to bear the pressure from her loved-ones and herself, Carrie decides to take off for New York without telling anyone. A spur-of-the-moment trip lasts months, and why shouldn’t it? Carrie is away from her family and from poor Mike for the first time in her young life. She embarks on an emotionally conflicting but sexually satisfying affair with Kilroy, who gives her excitement and the thrill of newness, but not much else. The freedom exhilarates her, but as the reader knows before Carrie does, it’s only a matter of time before regrets, guilt, and loyalty will her to come back to Madison.

The story itself is not remarkable. The plot is laid out for the reader from the very beginning, as the prologue begins with the novel’s most pivotal moment. That promising start stops abruptly once Carrie settles in New York. It’s really solid writing, but I can’t help but feel that Ms. Packer is writing to impress her high school English teacher. The novel has all the necessary elements readers have come to expect from Literature with a capital L: mundane activities serving as metaphors for deeper maladies (Kilroy’s inability to commit is illustrated when he is revealed as a compulsive radio station switcher in the car) and characters struggling to articulate their desires. (Carrie’s frustration and indecision is demonstrated through the various fabrics she uses to sew various pieces of clothing that she never gets around to wearing). How precious.

Having said that, i do admire Ms. Packer’s emotional generosity to her characters. Not once does she adopt a judgmental tone towards Carrie’s betrayal of the life she used to lead. Kilroy, who is a beguiling cipher but a cipher nonetheless, holds surprising emotional weight. Ms. Packer also has a refreshing ear for dialogue; her characters don’t come off as mere mouthpieces. The characters feel real, exasperating, and, in the end, worthy of redemption and forgiveness. This is what makes The Dive from Clausen’s Pier worth reading. I just wish that Ms. Packer had actually provided some sort of resolution for Carrie. Instead, Ms. Packer chose the safe route, which is ultimately what doomed what could have been a very good novel into just average, Lifetime-for-Women fodder. It’s good writing, but it’s self-conscious and calculated writing, and all the smoke and mirrors that Ms. Packer employs can’t distract from this flaw. In the end, Carrie’s risks, just like the novel itself, amount to not very much at all.

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Filed under Debuts, Fiction - General

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