[19 November 2003]
Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier was one of last year’s breakout novels. Making the cover of The New York Times Book Review and enjoying seemingly unanimous critical acclaim, the book sealed its author’s place in the industry as a vital addition to contemporary fiction. Responding to the phenomenal success of the book, Packer’s publishers have reissued her first, Mendocino and Other Stories, almost 10 years after its initial release. A collection of tales of suburban life in and around the San Francisco area, Mendocino features the same astute refining of character and setting displayed in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, not to mention a keen sense of the modern woman.
Coupled with the elegance of her first novel, Mendocino suggests Packer is a writer in it for the words, for the back-breaking, up-all-night, screaming-through-the-blocks love of storytelling (hardly surprising that it took Packer 10 years to write and rewrite Clausen’s Pier, including, at one point, a shift from third to first person). As a short story writer, she easily steps into the shoes of Flannery O’Connor, Alice Hoffman, Ann Beattie and Joyce Carol Oates with this collection, telling stories set at no particular time, reaffirming that throughout generations, concepts of humanity and demonstrations of emotion and conscience rarely change. The same things affect us all in different ways and with contrasting results, but ultimately each of us desire compassion and understanding.
Exemplifying the author’s own sentiment, that “there is a story in every apparently mundane life,” the stories in Mendocino lack flash; they’re subtle exercises in personal growth and individual perspective. Each of Packer’s central characters encounter moments in their lives which may seem unimportant at first glance, but which slowly reveal themselves as crucial. Telling stories from varying points of view, Packer proves herself as able to comment on the importance of white gloves to a teenager trying out for the cheerleading squad, as she is on the effects a mother’s affairs have on her homosexual son.
Packer’s importance couldn’t be more evident as 2003 comes to a close with the ever-spreading Chick-Lit Disease threatening women’s literature. Packer shatters the simplistic notion generated by authors like Candace Bushnell and Laura Zigman that all a woman needs is the love of a good, rich, hot bloke to make her life complete. She repeatedly steers clear of stereotypical depictions of women regardless of the familiarity of their circumstances. Her story, “Lightening,” for example, is about a couple getting to know the pregnant young woman whose child they will adopt. There’s nothing particularly new here, but it’s the treatment of the young woman who desperately wants a baby and the images Packer conjures to express her desperation that give the story its freshness.
Packer uses a few, sparse words to create characters who are well-rounded and engrossing; they strive for self-confidence and self-commitment, sometimes succeeding,sometimes not, holding ideas and passions far beyond what they see in the mirror. They may doubt themselves and they may cry, but these are women shaped by circumstance and by their own needs, not by what society dictates.