Swim Back to Me

Swim Back to Me

by Ann Packer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400079735
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/03/2012
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,267,557
Product dimensions: 5.26(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Ann Packer is the author of two best-selling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, the latter of which received a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award, and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vogue, and Real Simple. Also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, she lives in northern California with her family.


San Carlos, California

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Stanford, California


B.A., Yale University; M.F.A., University of Iowa

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.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me.  In her masterfully crafted and absorbing new book, Ann Packer portrays a group of characters struggling to come to terms with the conflicts and crises of late youth and adulthood, the ties that bind families together, and what happens when those bonds are tested.

1. The stories “Walk for Mankind” and “Things Said or Done” are interlocking narratives that capture the lives of two families over the course of several decades. “Walk for Mankind” paints a vivid portrait of Sasha and Richard as young teenagers, and also provides a concise but clear portrait of Richard at the age of fifty. In the second story, “Things Said or Done,” we see what has become of Sasha as a grown woman. How do these revelations about who Sasha and Richard become as adults defy or fulfill our expectations based on who they were as adolescents? Were you surprised by the trajectories of their lives? Why or why not?

2. When Sasha asks her father for a ride to the fund-raiser called Walk for Mankind, her father replies, “Ah, the Walk. Noblest of causes.” Later, Richard’s mother takes him to the Oakland ghetto, where they pass a prostitute, causing his mother to remark, “She’s mankind, too.” Discuss Richard’s mother’s views about class and social justice.

3. On page 16, Richard reflects on his mother’s reasons for leaving their family and remembered that she used her desire to help the underprivileged as a rationalization. He thinks wryly that “there were underprivileged and undereducated women on our side of the bay, too.” How did you feel reading the scenes with Richard’s mother? Is she a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

4. What is Harry Henry’s house? What does it represent to Richard and Sasha?

5. During the Walk for Mankind, a stranger called Karl shows Richard a series of pictures documenting the evolution of a frog. Years later, Richard asks, “How do people do it, pry themselves from their pasts. . . I wish I could say my life in the natural world began with a transformative experience. . . The course of true progress is boring…it’s incremental. Think of that frog, the one in Karl’s picture. There wasn’t a single moment when he passed into maturity….” How do the ideas about growth and change that Richard is grappling with here relate to Packer’s themes in this story and throughout Swim Back to Me?

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas about knowledge and personal growth seem to hover over both “Walk for Mankind” and “Things Said or Done.” At one point Richard’s father discusses the idea of the quest in relation to one of Emerson’s poems. Discuss the following passage about transformation from Emerson’s essay “Experience” in relation to Packer’s two linked stories: “If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.  All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that 'tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue. We never got it on any dated calendar day.”

7. “Walk for Mankind” ends with these words: “It would be years before it occurred to me that with that one gesture I managed to kill two birds with one stone. And I do mean kill. And I do mean birds, though perhaps I should say it with an English accent, buds. It isn’t easy, admitting your murders.” What do the birds in this paragraph symbolize? Compare and contrast with the exchange on page 30, in which Sasha and Richard make an emergency stop at a stranger’s house during the walk, and the tall man asks Sasha, “Did you get both birds?” How does the meaning and symbolism shift as the story continues? What does Richard feel he has murdered at the end of the story?

8. In “Things Said or Done,” Sasha says, “Such is the lot of the narcissist’s child, to inherit her parent’s umbrage over the world’s indifference.” What is Sasha’s lot?

9. At the wedding, Sasha and her father discuss a Yeats poem, which posits a dichotomy between conscience and vanity. Sasha says that she struggles with her conscience, and her father with his vanity. Which is worse, guilt or humiliation? Which is the animating fear for the characters in both “Walk for Mankind” and “Things Said or Done”?

10. At the conclusion of “Things Said or Done,” it becomes clear that Sasha has no memory of Richard, although Richard was a critical character at a formative moment of her youth. What does this suggest about our childhood experiences? What do you think the author is trying to convey about memory and experience, the nature of the past, and its relation to our future?

11. Discuss this paradoxical predicament from the end of “Jump”: “Wanting to be gone was one thing, but going was another.”

12. On page 158 the heroine of “Dwell Time” catalogs all the physical, empirical things she knows about Matt—“he counted out vitamins”; “he liked her to put her hand on his bare chest”—and then asks: “Was that someone who would run away?” How much do we know about the people we love? How much is it possible to know?

13. What is “dwell time”?

14. In the analogy presented on page 172—“How long would the next one be, the next period at home before he went off to war again”—where is war, and where is Matt’s true home?

15. At the end of “Her Firstborn,” Packer writes: “Dean’s had it all wrong: it isn’t that Lise had a baby who died, but rather that she had a baby, who died.” How is the meaning of this sentence profoundly changed by Packer’s movement of the comma? What are we meant to infer from this shift in emphasis? How does this alter our understanding of Lise’s experience?

16. In “Jump,” both Carolee and Alejandro are invested in projecting images of themselves that aren’t quite true to their life histories. Both are also uncomfortable with issues of affluence and privilege. Why? What are they trying to conceal, and who are they pretending to be?

17. Why is this collection called Swim Back to Me? From which story does the collection take its title, and how is it relevant to the collection as a whole?

18. Do the fathers in Packer’s collection have anything in common? The families? What do you think Packer views as the perils and consolations of family life?

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Swim Back to Me 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Birdsong44 More than 1 year ago
This seemed more like she gave up on many projects and threw them all into the same book rather than finishing any of the stories. It is a shame. Each of these stories could have been fleshed out and turned into good books. Instead, I was left feeling shortchanged and frustrated that I had invested any time into any of these characters.
harstan More than 1 year ago
"Walk for Mankind". In 1972 in Stanford, shy and sorry eighth grader Richard Appleby meets new and weird Sasha Horowitz walking home from the school bus. She is rebellious and has an affair with a drug dealer while he remains reticent.--------- "Molten". Fortyish Kathryn grieves the loss of her son Ben by playing his music.--------------- "Jump". Alejandro hides his affluence in order to work at a photocopy shop where his colleague Carolee wonders why the incompetent is not fired.-------------- "Dwell Time". Lara's first husband Adam was always notoriously late. Her second spouse Matt was always early. Now he is late for the first time in their relationship and Lara is worried something happened to him as this is out of character for him.----------- "Her First Born." In Eugene, Dean has never understood why his wife Lise remembers every little event involving her late child Jasper from her first marriage until she gives birth to his son Danny.--------- "Things Said or Done". Fiftyish Sasha looks back to when she met reticent Richard thirty five years ago when she was the one out of control and now when he has become the one out of control.--------------- This excellent anthology consists of one novella (Walk for Mankind) and five shorts with each providing readers with an in-depth psychological look at the dynamics of relationships. The well-written bookend Sasha tales are especially discerning.---------------- Harriet Klausner
nivramkoorb on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Having read her other 2 novels and spoken to her at a book reading, I am a big fan. I thought that she did a great job and making you feel the characters. I did like the way she tied up the opening novella with the final story. The short stories in between touch on very sensitive subjects but did it in a way that really conveyed the feelings of the characters. She does a great job and letting you feel the hopes and fears of parents. I did have trouble with the response of the character who was treated by the doctor for her HTI. Didn't seem believable but other than that it was good reading. I definitely recommend Ann Packer to all.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I missed that this was short stories (doesn't seem to be on the cover?), and I wouldn't have read it had I known. I kept waiting for the characters to connect, which of course they didn't till the last chapter. She's a great writer and I loved her Clausen's Pier book, but short stories just don't do it for me.
tac1948 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
not what I had hoped for all nemishes
nancylay on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Short stories that I found to be rather strange.
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Amai66 More than 1 year ago
This is a fine collection of short stories, not action packed suspense but more life lessons and relationships. Each story is a complex emotional blend, yet a simple look into middle class families and their common, every day problems. These problems and the solving of them help to develop character. This was an enjoyable, comforting read.
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