Expanding her canvas from The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2001, etc.), Packer explores a friendship and a family wounded by a teenager’s attempted suicide.
While she confined herself to the first-person narrator’s point of view in her bestselling first novel, here the author persuasively enters the heads of five different people in northern California: Liz and Sarabeth, best friends since the suicide of Sarabeth’s mother 30 years ago; Liz’s husband, Brody, a business-development executive; their severely depressed 15-year-old, Lauren; and her carefully well-adjusted younger brother, Joe. Sarabeth is unmarried, a designer who gussies up for-sale houses and apartments with custom-made lampshades or pillows. She’s the “creative” one, Liz the contented housewife who doesn’t mind hand-holding her turbulent friend. But when Lauren slashes her wrists and Sarabeth doesn’t call for days after finding out, Liz feels betrayed. Things are also rocky with Brody when Lauren comes home from the hospital; the different approaches the spouses take with their still-raw daughter drive them apart. At first, it’s hard to sympathize with Packer’s privileged, self-absorbed characters. Lauren seems to be wallowing in her distress; Sarabeth and Liz nurse their grievances instead of talking honestly about them; Brody flings himself into e-mail and business trips; Joe vanishes to soccer games and sleepovers. There isn’t a lot of action to grab readers’ attention. Slowly and carefully, Packer shows her characters putting their lives back together after a traumatizing blow. Lauren slowly regains her self-esteem and sense of humor; Brody and Liz reaffirm a deep, satisfying marital love; Sarabeth battles depression and makes new friends, understanding that she can’t always lean on Liz. The two old friends’ moving reconciliation closes a quiet narrative whose emotions, we come to realize, run deep and true.
A slight sophomore slump after a pitch-perfect debut, but commendably ambitious and ultimately rewarding.