Carrie Bell's relationship is falling apart quietly when her fiancé, Mike, in an effort to kick off a day at the park with friends, dives headfirst into shallow water. In most disintegrating romances that have lingered for many years, it usually takes something mundane -- another lover, a new job in a distant city -- to bring on the end. In Ann Packer's first novel, "The Dive From Clausen's Pier," Mike's tragic accident, one that renders him a quadriplegic, brings on a much more uncertain, and painful, dilemma. Carrie must choose between her loyalty to Mike and her own freedom.
I wasn't sure Packer would be able to draw out an interesting story from this one decision, especially since Carrie makes her choice quite early in the book. But while "The Dive From Clausen's Pier" is sometimes slow-moving, Packer untangles compelling ideas about devotion and sacrifice from her protagonist's quandary. The thoughtful, good-hearted Carrie, probably for the first time in her life, decides to put her own best interests first.
Naturally, Carrie is overcome with guilt: "I knew as clearly as I knew anything that I'd driven him to dive, to impress me." If Carrie's actions brought on the accident, she wonders, shouldn't she be involved in the aftermath? Living in a tight-knit circle in a small city like Madison, Wis., causes Carrie to feel like a heroine in a made-for-TV drama. She muses about a "glow" that she's taken on: "Mike's accident happened to Mike, not to me, but for a long time afterward I felt some of that glow, felt I was giving it off, so that even doing the most innocuous errand, filling my car with gas or buying toothpaste, I thought everyone around me must see I was in the middle of a crisis." Understandably, this glow (and Packer's smart characterization of it is just one example of her perceptive talents) makes traumatized people feel special, like they have carte blanche to do things they normally wouldn't: scowl at neighbors, lash out at waitresses, ignore family responsibilities -- or even run away.
It's no surprise that Carrie decides to leave Madison -- after two encounters with New Yorkers visiting the town, she's obviously drawn to their seemingly exotic lives -- though it's to Packer's credit that her readers are left wondering whether Carrie will ever return. At first, her departure is exciting and admirable. Carrie has been stuck in time, her childhood and teenage and college years bound up in a group of friends, weekend rituals and inside jokes that seems to Carrie "a symptom of whatever it was we all had, whatever disease it was that had us doing the exact same things we'd always done, and with the exact same people." She sees in her friends what she dislikes about herself; when she leaves, it's like she's bravely shedding a protective, yet uncomfortable skin.
Once in New York, however, Carrie also realizes that life can't be compartmentalized into neat blocks of time. Though she tries to move on -- dates a mysterious older man named Kilroy, works on her sewing, takes fashion design classes -- inevitably, her memories haunt her. People from the past and present meld together in her imagination, fighting for priority. Surprisingly, Carrie's clannish, partying hometown friends don't come off like shallow, clunky caricatures, and her hip, artistic and independent New York friends aren't idealized. Instead both groups represent different parts of Carrie -- her loved ones and her inner passions. Must one be sacrificed for the other? Does a change of geography mean a change of self?
Obviously, Carrie can't have what she really wants: "More than anything, I wanted to eradicate that final fruitless effort, the idea for which had overtaken [Mike] on the pier: that a playful gesture on his part, half foolhardy and half brave, could wake me to the old feelings at last." What Carrie finds instead, and what Packer distinguishes so elegantly, is the difference between walking away and moving forward.