The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, by Ann Packer
9/10, a rich, beautiful story about a woman figuring out her life
“Figuring out her life.” That’s a lousy way to summarize the trials and tribulations of Carrie Bell, the heroine of “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.” We read the first chapter, a prologue of sorts, in our “Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown” seminar earlier this year, and when I asked our teacher for recommended books that handle tension well, this was one she recommended.
Packer certainly does know how to build tension. The first chapter nearly begins with Carrie saying “That year, the year everything changed…” but doesn’t tell us why until later, dropping other clues throughout until by the time her fiance Mike takes his fateful dive off the pier, we know something bad will happen. Things haven’t been good between her and Mike; like the lake, their love is at a low ebb. Carrie hasn’t had the strength to break things off, but she knows she will have to before they go much further.
This is a persistent trait of hers, to put off decisions until forced by a crisis. In the wake of Mike’s accident (a broken neck), she is trapped into the obligation she was planning to flee, now made more onerous by Mike’s disability. The first part of the book moves slowly, detailing how that one accident and her reactions to it unravel other parts of her life: her relationship with Mike’s parents, her friendship with her best friend Jamie, her friendships with the other members of their group.
It’s the second part of the book, after Carrie makes an initial decision about what path to take, where things pick up. Even though she’s made a decision, it isn’t final, and the path not taken still plucks at her even as she finds happiness in the course she chose. Tension between the two escalates until the end of the book, when she reaches a final decision, and a final peace of sorts.
For people who love good characters, this book is a rich Godiva chocolate assortment of them. I said once that characters become real from what they do, and memorable from how they do it. Packer’s characters are fully, achingly real, in such a normal setting that for them to be memorable would almost be a betrayal of the world. But they are all memorable in small ways, mannerisms like those we know in our own friends. I often felt frustrated with Carrie ignoring what seemed to me to be obvious choices, but had to realize that that is who she is; in her place, I would have acted differently (and it would not have been nearly as interesting a story).
The writing itself is marvelous, too. Carrie’s hobby is clothing and sewing, and Packer makes us aware of what everyone is wearing, to the point that I started to look around in my own life and notice clothes. This loving detail extends to the characters themselves. One of the lasting effects of this book, and the reason for its high score, is because after reading it, I feel less able to ignore the stories in all the people I meet and pass every day.
That sounds either terribly pretentious (“I can now see the hidden depths in everyone”) or ignorant (“I didn’t realize other people had depth!”), but I can’t think of a better way to say it. I think we all know that everyone we meet has a story just like we do, but most of the time we don’t think about it. It takes too much time and effort to think about what the woman who rushes onto the train every morning to get a double seat went through as a child, or why the guy with the laptop open in the coffee shop is just staring blankly out the window. But a book like this, so rich in characters and their stories, makes you reach out from your own story and touch other people’s, if only to wonder what they might be, if only for a moment.
And by the time Carrie has finished this chapter of her own story, you understand that although this is an ending, there will be more to come. She has reached as much of an equilibrium as any of us ever do. If it is not a completely satisfying ending, it is at least a very real one, and maybe the two are mutually exclusive, after all. If you love characters, if you love drama, if you love the small town and big city and all the people in them, you will love this book.