Packer, Ann 1959–
Packer, Ann 1959–
PERSONAL: Born 1959; daughter of educators; married Jon James (an architect); children: two.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer and teacher.
AWARDS, HONORS: James Michener award; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing fellowship; O. Henry prize, 1992.
Mendocino and Other Stories, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1994.
The Dive from Clausen's Pier, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including Ploughshares and New Yorker. Work collected in anthologies, including Prize Stories 1992: The O. Henry Awards.
ADAPTATIONS: The Dive from Clausen's Pier was adapted for audio, read by Scarlett Johansson, Random House Audio (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Ann Packer's first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier, shot up the New York Times bestseller list after being chosen as its first selection by the Good Morning America book club, one of a number of clubs that were created after talk-show host Oprah Winfrey discontinued hers.
Packer is the daughter of two educators; her mother taught creative writing, and her father taught law at Stanford University. She attended Yale University, where she took a writing course and became hooked. Her first book, Mendocino and Other Stories is a collection of tales which take place in California, Madison, Wisconsin, Greenwich Village, and other locales Packer has either lived in or frequented.
Erika Taylor commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that, "in an oblique fashion, Packer's opening paragraphs give up the secret of each story, yet to find out how and why that secret was born, one must keep reading. And it's hard not to." Taylor felt the best story of the collection to be "My Mother's Yellow Dress," in which the narrator begins by saying that she said something unforgivable to her mother just before the woman died, but that she did not know she was dying.
Jeanne Schinto wrote in Belles Lettres that Packer "is good at evoking the authentic details of her chosen milieu—in this case, the world inhabited by the younger cousins of Ann Beattie's fictional folks. She doesn't just leave it at that, however, her details add up to something bigger than a portrait of a lifestyle. In fact, what I think she is trying to say above all is that details—the trivialities that consume so many upscale, educated lives—are not the point of life, and if you get confused and think that they are, you are doomed to be miserable."
The title story in Mendocino and Other Stories is about a brother and sister whose father committed suicide. They have been there for each other, without ever discussing the reason for their father's actions, until the brother becomes involved with a woman who brings the event up. Three of the ten stories have as a common theme the desire to have children. Two are about couples who cannot conceive because of medical problems, while the third is about a self-absorbed woman who pines for a child as she sees her coworkers procreate, but who is not capable of loving and marrying a man in order to start her own family. As Schinto noted, other stories are about older "babies," "adults who have trouble growing up." A Publishers Weekly contributor remarked that the tales "are rich in detail and concentrate on the unexpressed emotions festering under the surface of each character's thin skin."
The Dive from Clausen's Pier begins in Madison, Wisconsin, where the protagonist, twenty-three-year-old Carrie Bell, was already dissatisfied with her life before a fateful Memorial Day outing. Mike Mayer, her boyfriend since high school, dives from a pier at a reservoir and breaks his neck, leaving him in a coma for four weeks and rendering him quadriplegic. Packer's own father was partially paralyzed, a fact that may be responsible for her sensitive rendering of Mike. Karen Valby wrote in Entertainment Weekly that Packer treats Mike's character with respect. "Unashamed of his small-town fantasies, he remains the moral center of the book. Mature and brave, his character never careens into an emasculated touchy-feely triumph zone…. Mike is already grown-up, so The Dive from Clausen's Pier is really Carrie's coming-of-age story."
Carrie visits Mike in the hospital but ultimately bolts to New York City when faced with the prospect of caring for him for the rest of her life. Once there, she wrestles with her choices as she loses herself in big-city life. The overriding question now becomes, how much does she owe Mike, and how much does she owe herself? An Economist reviewer felt that Carrie "is not a sympathetic character, but she is all the more interesting for it. Ms. Packer writes extremely well about the messy nature of Carrie's love for Mike, about her mixed feelings of guilt and selfishness, affection and impatience." Salon.com contributor Suzy Hansen felt that, "what Carrie finds … and what Packer distinguishes so elegantly, is the difference between walking away and moving forward."
Rob Nixon wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Packer "can seemingly get anyone—a lover, a new roommate, a best friend's mother, possibly even the dead—to open their mouths and say things that instantly define them. Throughout the book, she homes in on exchanges that sound ordinary enough yet manage to exceed their ordinariness, giving the writing psychological depth. The Dive from Clausen's Pier gains much of its energy from Packer's instinctive sense of the way people talk under the pressure of calamity, love, or ruptured friendship—and especially under the pressure of all three."
Nixon noted that Packer "has chosen her opposing cities well, since Madison and New York are both claimants to perfection of a sort…. For a certain type of person, Madison has everything…. Packer's New York scenes are alive with the sense of what it's like to arrive in the city young and awed." The critic also felt Packer's writing about Carrie's New York relationship with Kilroy to be some of the finest in the book: "Kilroy is a hyperurban creature, wry, angular, somewhat depressive and somewhat cool, as eloquent as he is evasive…. Carrie is intrigued by him." Nixon also praised Packer's other male characters, including Mike's buddy, Rooster, and Mike's father. "Lucid prose limns complicated people whose dilemmas illuminate crucial moral choices, large and small," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor of the novel, concluding that The Dive from Clausen's Pier is "very fine fiction indeed."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Belles Lettres, spring, 1995, Jeanne Schinto, review of Mendocino and Other Stories, p. 28.
Denver Post, April 21, 2002, Diane Hartman, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier.
Economist, August 10, 2002, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier.
Entertainment Weekly, May 3, 2002, Karen Valby, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 80.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2002, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 14.
Kliatt, July, 2003, Nola Theiss, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 25.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 2, 1994, Erika Taylor, review of Mendocino and Other Stories, p. 6.
New York Times Book Review, May 12, 2002, Rob Nixon, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 11.
Psychiatric Times, November 1, 2002, Alexandra N. Helper, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, May 2, 1994, review of Mendocino and Other Stories, p. 302; March 4, 2002, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 54.
School Library Journal, August, 2002, Julie Dasso, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 222.
Washington Post Book World, July 17, 1994, Joanne Tangorra, review of Mendocino and Other Stories, p. 6.
World and I, November, 2002, Maude McDaniel, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, p. 211.
Beatrice, http://www.beatrice.com/ (January 8, 2004), Ron Hogan, interview with Packer.
Bookbrowse.com, http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (July 25, 2002), interview with Packer.
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (July 19, 2002), Suzy Hansen, review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier.