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Emergence of a Writer

Ann Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier

I first encountered Ann Packer in 1998, during a trip to the town of Mendocino. While browsing through Gallery Books, I happened on a collection eponymously titled Mendocino and Other Stories, written by a familiar-sounding author named Ann Packer.

I don't know why her name sounded familiar -- I later found out I'd actually never heard of her -- but I'm glad I picked up the book, even though it seemed a bit touristy at the time. Only tangentially related to the quirky tourist town, Packer's stories were spare, original and arresting, the book a sort of Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing as if written by Joan Didion, with long, intricate complex sentences giving insight into common human dramas. I looked eagery for other Packer stories, but found none.

Last April, my wait ended: Ann Packer published her first novel -- in fact, her first book-length work since 1994, when she published Mendocino. When I received advance publicity materials for The Dive from Clausen's Pier, I was, instead of being excited, apprehensive. Usually, it does not take an author eight years after producing her collection of short stories to publish her first novel. It was probably only going to be marginally good.

Boy, was I wrong.

A few months later, I heard Packer's novel was the book-group pick on one of the morning shows. Then, I saw huge stacks of the book at the major book venues: Cody's, Book Passage, Stacey's, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. How interesting, I thought, and picked up a copy. It sat on my shelf for a few more weeks, until I'd read several commending reviews, seen Packer scheduled for readings around the Bay Area and realized she'd become a major emerging novelist, the kind Oprah and, possibly, the National Book Award selection committee gives notice to, on which a low-key big-budget film starring Natalie Portman will be based.

The story of Carrie Bell, a young woman just beginning to explore her identity, The Dive from Clausen's Pier opens with a chilling prologue that seems hauntingly foreordained. Carrie and her group of friends herald the upcoming summer with their annual picnic at Lake Clausen. By the end of the prologue, we learn two things: that Carrie has been considering breaking things off with her high-school- sweetheart-turned-fiancÚ, Mike, and that Mike, who dives from the pier into the lake and breaks his neck, is either dead, in a coma or a quadriplegic.

While this novel is certainly the story of a young couple learning to cope with a permanent, mobility-impeding disability, it is foremost the tale of a woman's developing into an adult, someone capable of leading a life instead of watching it go by. Carrie relocates herself to a different community and finds herself forced to make decisions: who will she love, what will she do and who will she be? The answers surprise: the main character's decisions are very human, swinging from random plunges into the unknown, to calm accountability for herself and the world's failings.

More than just a compelling story, as Publishers Weekly noted, "This is the sort of book one reads dying to know what happens to the characters, but loves for its wisdom: it sees the world with more clarity than you do." After showing glimmers of this rare insight into universal issues in Mendocino, the writer's talents have matured in The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Those intricate, frightfully clear sentences have become even richer, proving Packer well deserving of the enormous amount of publicity her book has received.

I just hope we don't have to wait another eight years for her next book...

The Dive from Clausen's Pier
By Ann Packer
Hardcover: 384 pages (April 2002)
Knopf; ISBN: 0375412824

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