- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

By Ann Packer
Knopf, $24, 370 pages

In "The Dive From Clausen's Pier," first-time novelist Ann Packer explores the themes of selflessness and selfishness at length, but unfortunately not in depth.
Carrie Bell, the book's 23-year-old protagonist, faces a moral dilemma the size of the Mount Everest. Her fiance, all-American nice guy, Mike, whom she's been going out with since they were teenagers, becomes paralyzed in a diving accident on an otherwise beautiful summer day in Madison, Wis. Carrie is faced with two choices: She can either be selfless and stay to take care of Mike, which is what everyone is expecting of her, or she can be selfish and leave, because that's what she wants to do.
Already before the accident, Carrie had her doubts about the relationship. It lacked thrill and excitement. But no one, other than Carrie and Mike, knew that the romance was faltering. So, what would it look like if Carrie up and left right after Mike's terrible accident? She would seem ruthless, heartless, right? But despite her fears about Mike's disappointment and that of other friends and family members, she quits her job as a librarian, packs her bags and leaves for New York City. She has a friend there with whom she can stay for free. She feels guilty, but also needs time and space to breathe and think things over.
Days become weeks and weeks become months. Carrie meets Kilroy, a cynical, aloof guy who reveals little to nothing about himself. They start a romantic relationship that seems to be on his terms. He is unwilling to "let her in" fully and after months of going out, she still doesn't know his family. She barely knows his real name. But what she does like about the relationship is that he lets her be Carrie, and he makes few demands on her.
The two go to museums, bars and movies and Kilroy introduces her to the streets and avenues of New York, which are as intrinsic to him as the arteries and veins of his body. Carrie loses touch with Mike, friends and family in Madison and it seems unlikely she will go back. But one day, her guilty conscience takes over and she leaves to go home. Maybe she will get closure, or maybe it's time for a new beginning in her old stomping grounds.
The premise of the story is intriguing and the author poses some intense questions about our commitment to others versus that to ourselves. But the characters are all more or less aloof and as readers we never get in under their skin. We guess their motivations for doing things, but we don't know. Their personalities are never analyzed, and we know little or nothing about their backgrounds.
In fact, we know more about the type of materials silk and velvet that avid hobby seamstress, Carrie, likes to sew with, than we do about her goals and dreams for the future. And her anxieties about the past and present. That type of enigma might work in short fiction, but in a novel we need depth to engage us.
All the characters possess the same detachment and distance that Carrie accuses Kilroy of, which means we end up caring less about poor Mike and the others than we should. This, in spite of the fact that Mike fights his condition stoically in rehab and with a mostly good attitude about life. Nevertheless, we don't feel the characters' desperation, sadness or loss. They sort of float above those intense feelings, and they never really come alive.
Also, no one really seems to worry about money, a subject with which many people in their early 20s are consumed. Maybe the lack of analysis and depth has to do with the age group being portrayed. But even if that's part of the explanation for the superficial flavor of their personalities, the book still comes up short. We want more blood, sweat and tears.
While an excellent wordsmith, the author does not layer the narrative with the type of personal complexities that would have made the book more engaging and certainly more realistic. As it stands, this slice-of-life tale would have done better as a short story than a 370-page novel.

Gabriella Boston is a reporter on the metro desk of The Washington Times.

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