Swim Back to Me

Swim Back to Me

2.9 20
by Ann Packer

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From Ann Packer, author of the New York Times best-selling novels The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words, a collection of burnished, emotionally searing stories, framed by two unforgettable linked narratives that express the transformation of a single family over the course of a lifetime.

A wife struggles to make sense of

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From Ann Packer, author of the New York Times best-selling novels The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words, a collection of burnished, emotionally searing stories, framed by two unforgettable linked narratives that express the transformation of a single family over the course of a lifetime.

A wife struggles to make sense of her husband’s sudden disappearance. A mother mourns her teenage son through the music collection he left behind. A woman shepherds her estranged parents through her brother’s wedding and reflects on the year her family collapsed. A young man comes to grips with the joy—and vulnerability—of fatherhood. And, in the masterly opening novella, two teenagers from very different families forge a sustaining friendship, only to discover the disruptive and unsettling power of sex.

Ann Packer is one of our most talented archivists of family life, with its hidden crevasses and unforeseeable perils, and in these stories she explores the moral predicaments that define our social and emotional lives, the frailty of ordinary grace, and the ways in which we are shattered and remade by loss. With Swim Back to Me, she delivers shimmering psychological precision, unfailing intelligence, and page-turning drama: her most enticing work yet.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Packer's sterling collection is framed by two novellas. In the opener, "Walk for Mankind," teenager Richard Appleby describes his bittersweet relationship with Sasha Horowitz, a rebellious, risk-taking 14-year-old, who has a clandestine affair with a drug dealer. Sasha's behavior is a reaction to her controlling and hyper-charming father, an English professor who's spiraling downward professionally and personally. "Things Said or Done" is set three decades later, when Sasha, now 51 and divorced, has become Richard's caretaker, forced to deal with his self-destructive, narcissistic personality while recognizing the ways in which they are alike. Packer's talents are evident in these psychologically astute novellas, and also in the stories in between. "Molten" conveys a mother's grief over her adolescent son's senseless death; "Dwell Time" features a protagonist's happy second marriage—until her husband disappears. In the affecting "Her First Born," a new father finally understands his wife's attachment to the memory of her first child, who died. The only misstep is "Jump," whose lead character, a rich man's son who fakes an underprivileged background to work in a photocopy shop, lacks credibility. Packer (The Dive from Clausen's Pier) presents complex human relationships with unsentimental compassion. (Apr.)
Library Journal
This new collection from Packer (The Dive from Clausen's Pier) is framed by two stunning first-person narratives that introduce readers to two academic families briefly converging in and around Stanford in the 1970s. In each case, the narrator comes from the second generation. The opening story, "Walk for Mankind," captures the viewpoint of the teenage son of an established Stanford history professor, while the closing piece, "Things Said and Done," gives voice to the adventurous daughter of a visiting instructor taking a step down from Yale for a one-year appointment in Palo Alto. In each instance, Packer pulls the strings in such a way that the itinerant father, doomed by his difficult personality to a life perpetually lived off the tenure track, becomes the focal point. Unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, the other four stories in the volume, though well crafted and engaging, have the feel of problems solved rather than lives fully lived. VERDICT Whereas some great short story writers stumble with the sprawl of a novel, Packer, who occasionally works on a smaller scale, appears to be a novelist at heart. Still, these California stories are expansive and open-ended. It's hard to let them go. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/10.]—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Kirkus Reviews

A novella and five stories limn with acuity and empathy the intricate negotiations and painful losses of family life.

To Richard, the 13-year-old narrator of "Walk for Mankind," his new friend Sasha's parents, Dan and Joanie Horowitz, seem happier and much more fun than his morose father and his well-intentioned, much-resentedmother, who left her husband and son to move out to Oakland because she "needed to do something useful with my life." But Sasha's escapades with sex and drugs over the course of the 1972-3 school year reveal fissures in the Horowitzes' cheerfully bohemian façade even before Dan loses his job at Stanford—and before the collection's final story, "Things Said or Done," revisits Sasha decades later. There, on the eve of her brother's wedding, she copes with impossible Dan, the novella's charming scapegrace now revealed as a terminal narcissist, and quietly seethes over the disengagement of Joanie, who long ago checked out of the drama. Families are fragile in these gently unsparing stories; the death of a child drives both "Molten," a scarifying snapshot of raw grief, and "Her Firstborn," the tender story of a young father-to-be haunted by the knowledge that his wife's previous marriage was destroyed by the crib death of her 5-month-old son. It's characteristic of Packer's subtle artistry that "Her Firstborn" climaxes with a sentence whose emotional force derives from the insertion of a comma. Her prose is deceptively simple, her insights always complex. "Dwell Time," another portrait of a second marriage, shows a woman realizing that her new husband has not shed all his demons with his divorce and deciding that she will try to live with them. Acknowledging the hurt and sorrow our loved ones bring us, the author never forgets to trace the joys of intimacy as well.

Touching, tender and true—short fiction nearly as rich and satisfying as Packer's two fine novels (Songs Without Words, 2007, etc.).

Lydia Peelle
[Packer] captures suburban life with an archivist's eye for detail…But the stories in Swim Back to Me are far from predictable tales of American domesticity. Every plot is a potential time bomb, skillfully paced and ticking with tension and suspense…
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
“Stunning. . . . Packer can break your heart—and she can mend it, too. ” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A tour de force. . . . With this collection, Ann Packer takes her place among today’s best authors of literary fiction.” —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“[Packer’s] patient investigations reveal human longing in such clear, stripped-down familiarity—never shirking from the difficult—that readers experience a singular sense of comfort.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Exhilarating. . . . Searing. . . . [Packer’s] stories brim with piercing vitality and clear-eyed believability.” —The Washington Post
Packer paints these lives with full and compassionate brush strokes.” —The New York Times Book Review
“As audacious, imaginative and poignant as any of [Packer’s] previous work. . . . Packer can compress a lifetime of hope and sorrow in a short story, and in a brief paragraph can suggest the unspoken language of marriage and family.” —The Miami Herald
“Wonderful. . . . [A] lovely, masterful collection.” —The Boston Globe

“Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me reminded me of why I fell in love with literature in the first place. Upon closing the book, I thought, ‘I’ll read this again’. . . . Packer’s stories stick with you.” —Susan Baleé, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Packer . . . is a master at getting to the heart of characters struggling on in the face of loss. . . . Swim Back to Me is best enjoyed for Packer’s sharply focused snapshots of people at pivotal points in their lives, a focus so intense that we can feel as if we’re spying on them. ” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“[Beginning] Packer’s stories feels as nonchalant as stepping into a puddle but results in a sudden plunge into deep water. . . . Potent and deftly written.”  —Dallas Morning News
“An author who speaks with her full voice. . . . The people in Packer’s stories are so possible and so familiar, reading about them is like flipping through a photo album with someone you’ve always known.” —San Francisco magazine
“Anyone intrigued by the ways we both fail and save one another will find ample food for thought here.” —People
“Deeply engrossing. . . . Illuminates the instant, in the darkest hour of grief, when the heart opens wider than ever before—and shows us a new way of being.” —More
“Gripping. . . . A stunning look into how we learn and sometimes fail to live with each other.” —The Daily Beast
“Touching, tender and true.” —The Austin American Statesman
“Utterly readable. . . . Ann Packer has a talent for creating authentic, absorbing characters.” —Ladies Home Journal
 “A keen observer of family dynamics. . . . Packer the novelist is equally adept at the short form.” —The Oakland Tribune
“Packer’s descriptions of what crisis looks like from the inside out are almost always word-perfect.” —Toledo Blade
“Subtle, deeply personal. . . . [An] excellent collection.” —Bookreporter.com
“Powerful . . . satisfying. . . . Packer’s characters are fully developed with emotions that feel authentic.” —BookPage

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Walk for Mankind •

September 1972. It was the first week of eighth grade, and I sat alone near the back of the school bus: a short, scrawny honor-roll boy with small hands and big ears. The route home meandered through Los Altos Hills, with its large houses sitting in the shadows of old oak trees and dense groves of eucalyptus. Finally we came down out of the hills and arrived in Stanford, where the last twenty or so of us lived, in houses built close together on land the University leased to its faculty. A couple of stops before mine, a clump of kids rose and moved up the aisle, and that’s when I saw her, a new girl sitting up near the front.

To my surprise, she shouldered her backpack at my stop. I waited until she was off the bus and then made my way up the aisle, keeping my eyes away from Bruce Cavanaugh and Tony Halpern, who’d been my friends back in elementary school. Down on the bright sidewalk, she was headed in the direction I had to go, and I followed after her, walking slowly so I wouldn’t overtake her. She was small-boned like me, with thick red hair spilling halfway down her back and covering part of her backpack, which was decorated with at least a dozen McGovern buttons, rather than the usual one or two. There was even a Nixon button with a giant red X drawn over his ugly face.

She stopped suddenly and turned, and I got my first glimpse of her face: pale and peppered with freckles. “Who are you?” she said.

“Sorry.” I was afraid she thought I was following her when I was just heading home.

She came forward and offered me her hand. “Hi, Sorry—I’m Sasha. Or maybe I should say ‘I’m New.’ We can call each other Sorry and New, and then when we get to know each other better we can switch to something else. Shy and Weird, maybe.”

I had never met anyone who talked like this, and it took me a moment to respond. “My name’s Richard.”

She rolled her eyes. “I know that. I didn’t mean who are you what’s your name—I meant who are you who are you. Your name is Richard Appleby and you live around the corner from me, in the house with all the ice plant.”

Now I got it: she was part of the family renting the Levines’ house. Teddy Levine was spending the year at the American Academy in Rome, and the Levine kids were going to go to some Italian school and come back fluent and probably strange. The Jacksons had spent a year in London, and afterward Helen Jackson had been such an oddball her parents had taken her out of public school.

The girl’s hand was still out, and though I’d never shaken hands with another kid before, I held mine out for her, and she pumped it up and down. She had blue-gray eyes with very light lashes, and a long, pointy noise.

“Sasha Horowitz,” she said. “Happy to know you. I was waiting for you to come over, but it’s just as well we met like this—if you’d come over I’d’ve probably been a freak. Plus my parents would’ve co-opted the whole thing. Do your parents do that? Co-opt everything? When I was really little my dad would always try to play with me and my friends—he’d give us rides on his back like a horse, and he’d kind of buck sometimes, and one time a friend of mine fell off and broke her wrist. Her parents were really overprotective—she was never allowed to come over again.” Still looking at me, Sasha shrugged off her backpack and ran her fingers through her heavy, carrot-colored hair. She gathered it into a thick ponytail and secured it with a rubber band from her wrist. She said, “There, that’s better. So do you love San Francisco? We had a picnic in Golden Gate Park on Saturday, and we saw a guy on an acid trip—my little brother thought he was in a play. The only thing is, I’m expecting to be miserable about missing winter.”

“Are you from somewhere cold?” I said. “Did you have snow?”

“New Haven. And God, yes—we had mountains of it. It was a huge pain in the ass. Do you want to come over? You should, because my mother’ll ask me to tell her about school otherwise and I really don’t feel like talking to her.”

She stood there looking at me, waiting for me to answer, and I thought of my mother, in her shabby apartment across the bay in Oakland, where she had lived alone for the last seven months, an exile of her own making. I looked at my watch. In two and a half hours my father would bike home from his office on campus, and after he’d had a drink we would sit down to a dinner that Gladys, our new housekeeper, had left us in the oven. Telling him about school was my job, just as asking about it was his.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll come over. For a little while.”

Within two weeks I had eaten dinner at Sasha’s house three times, had gone with her and her father to buy tiki lamps for the backyard, had driven to San Francisco with all four Horowitzes to have Sunday morning dim sum. On election night, the five of us squeezed onto the living room couch and yelled at the television set together. In December I ate my first ever potato latkes at their house, and on New Year’s weekend my father allowed me to skip a visit to my mother in favor of an expedition with the Horowitzes to Big Sur.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That first day, once I was home again and my father and I were in the kitchen just before dinner, I found out what had brought Sasha’s family to Stanford. According to my father, her father had been denied tenure by the English Department at Yale and had accepted a one-year renewable appointment at Stanford—which, my father said, was “quite interesting.”

“Usually you’d stay on for a year or two, try to publish some work, get your CV in order, then go on the job market for a tenure track position somewhere else.” He paused and drew his lips into his mouth, as he often did in thoughtful moments. He was a straight-backed man with neat gray hair and hazel eyes: handsome enough. But when he did this thing with his mouth his chin took over, and he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

He let his lips go. “Maybe there was some bad blood. There often is in a case like this.”

I said, “Maybe he just wanted to leave.” I had met him—Dan—on my way out, and he’d seemed far too friendly for whatever my father might have in mind. “Richard Appleby!” he’d said. “Excellent to meet you! Tell me, are the natives amicable? May we count on you for guidance? You must tell us what the customs are. The customs of the country. You’ll help us, won’t you? Correct our clothing, teach us the vernacular?” And all the while Sasha stood there rolling her eyes but unable to keep from smiling.

“I could ask Hugh Canfield,” my father said. Hugh Canfield was my father’s closest—really, his only—friend outside the History Department. They’d been at Princeton together. Hugh was chair of the English Department and therefore someone who’d have information about Dan.

“You don’t have to ask,” I said. “I don’t care.”

“No, of course not,” my father said. “Though it’s curious. To have been at Yale, he must be very promising.”

He was far more than promising to me. He was promise fulfilled, one of those people who makes the most ordinary occasion brilliant. Build a blanket fort in the living room, which Peter, Sasha’s little brother, loved to do? With Dan’s help we built Peter a blanket civilization, with a theater and a civic center and a mausoleum for Peter’s stuffed hippopotamus, whom we named Hippocritz, the Czar-King of Egypt-Arabia.

He was tall and skinny, Dan, with Sasha’s frizzy red hair and a great beak of a nose. He played endless games of Risk with us, literally yelling when he lost hold of a continent; and he was fond of showing up at our school at dismissal time with the car packed full of quilts and announcing that he was taking us to the beach to watch the sunset. Joanie, Sasha’s mother, possessed quieter charms, but she had a knack for making things special, too: on Halloween night, a little too old for trick-or-treating ourselves, we shepherded Peter around the neighborhood wearing caps she’d made for us, with badges that said “Official Halloween Escort—Will Say Yes to Candy.” At home, she did quick charcoal sketches of anyone who happened to be nearby, and when she thought they were good she wrote a caption on them and taped them to the kitchen walls. There were a lot of Sasha and Peter, of course, but within a few months there were a couple of me, too, one in which I was holding a deck of cards in my hand, labeled “The Schemer,” and another, in which I was looking off to the side, that said “Richard waiting.” “He looks like a retard in that one,” Sasha said. “Take it down.” But Joanie didn’t, and though I didn’t say so to Sasha, I was glad.

Sasha. She had a little of each parent in her, Dan’s gaiety, Joanie’s warmth, plus something essential and not altogether pleasant that was entirely hers, like a back note of pepper in a rich chocolate dessert. It was a quality that made her—that gave her permission to—insist on what she wanted. We played Truth or Dare a lot, and her dares invariably had me taking risks that just happened to have as their end points some small reward for her: a stolen candy bar, the details of an overheard—an eavesdropped-upon—conversation.

“Someone has a sweetheart,” Gladys said, but it wasn’t that. For one thing, we hardly spoke at school, Sasha having found a niche among some other Stanford kids while I stuck with two guys I’d met during seventh grade, Malcolm and Bob, precisely because they weren’t Stanford kids and hadn’t known me when my mother was around. Occasionally Sasha would track down the three of us at lunchtime and plop down next to me with her brown bag (which contained, unvaryingly, an egg salad sandwich on pumpernickel, a handful of dried apricots, and a small can of pineapple juice). More often, we’d join up once we’d gotten off the school bus, or one of us would appear at the other’s front door at about four o’clock and say, with heavy irony, “Do you want to play?”

“I’ve always had boys as friends,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”

I hadn’t had a girl as a friend since kindergarten, and for me it was strange and exciting. But I wanted to seem as blasé as she was. “Yeah,” I said. “People are so idiotic.”

Gladys may have given me knowing smiles when Sasha came over, but my father hardly noticed I had a new friend. Right after my mother left, he reduced his time at the University, spending Saturdays in his study at home rather than going to campus. He was hard at work on a book about the New Deal, though, and by the time the Horowitzes arrived he was back to his old habits, and he clung to them through that fall and winter, working, working. Sunday was his only day of rest, and we always did something together: went to a concert or played a board game or even tried to navigate our way through some complicated baking project, in service to his ferocious sweet tooth.

He was fifty that year, the age I am now, but he wore fifty in the old way, with lace-up leather dress shoes and starched shirts. Sometimes when I’m out for a run, or just kicking a soccer ball with my kids, I think my father, if he were still alive, would not recognize me. He would see that I was his son, he would see that I was Richard—but he wouldn’t be able to make any kind of sense of me as a middle-aged man.

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