Friendship between women can be a complex thing, with break-ups, make-ups and heartache to rival that of any romantic union. Ann Packer's Songs Without Words her follow-up to the best-selling The Dive From Clausen's Pier, expertly captures the intricacies of this relationship, along with the complications of marriage and the despair that often accompanies adolescence.
Songs Without Words follows the tale of childhood friends Liz and Sarabeth. When they are 16, Liz's family takes Sarabeth in after the suicide of her mother; this cements a bond that continues into adulthood. While Liz graduates from college into the more conventional role of wife and mother, Sarabeth drifts from one unstable relationship to another, making a living through her art. But despite the disparate paths their lives have taken, the two have a connection that appears unbreakable. It is only when Liz's teenage daughter, Lauren, attempts suicide, that the strength of her tie to Sarabeth is seriously tested.
The novel is told in the voices of multiple characters; along with hearing from both Liz and Sarabeth, the reader gets the viewpoints of Liz's husband, Brody, and Lauren. Packer writes with unsentimental realism about the effects of a child's violent act on her parents' marriage and about the teenager's universe, in which it can be difficult to see beyond today's pain.
Packer does falter at times in capturing Lauren; awash in misery throughout most of the book, she does not feel quite as multilayered as the other three characters. But for the most part, the players are easy to relate to full of flaws, often acting in ways that make them unlikable, but ultimately appealing in their perfectly human imperfection. It is a credit to Packer that the reader might not always root for the women's friendship (the connecting link in the book, the one that affects all four characters) to survive. As Songs Without Words illustrates, sometimes one event can bring out the underlying issues that were there all along in a relationship that was only healthy on its surface. Sometimes the relationship will endure, other times it won't (and perhaps shouldn't). Packer resists the urge to provide simple answers, which makes for a compelling read.