Songs Without Words (Vintage Contemporaries)

By Ann Packer
Publisher:Vintage, (7/29/2008)

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Liz and Sarabeth were girlhood neighbors in the suburbs of Northern California, brought as close as sisters by the suicide of Sarabeth's mother. In the decades that followed, their relationship remained a source of continuity and strength. But when Liz's adolescent daughter enters dangerous waters, the women's friendship takes a devastating turn, forcing Liz and Sarabeth to question their most deeply held beliefs about their connection. From the bestselling author of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, Songs Without Words is the gripping story of a lifelong friendship pushed to the breaking point.
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"Songs Without Words (Vintage Contemporaries)"
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 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

1. Ann Packer has been praised for the lifelike quality of her fiction. Do you feel that the friendship depicted here seems especially true to life? Do you find yourself choosing sides with either Liz or Sarabeth?

2. Why does Lauren attempt to kill herself? What are the immediate and the more suppressed causes? How does Lauren herself explain it?

3. Liz tells Brody that she feels completely guilty for Lauren’s suicide attempt. “I know, it sounds crazy,” she says, “but the point is: if it was your fault, then you weren’t powerless—you weren’t at the mercy of stuff just happening.” To which Brody replies: “You’re always going to be at the mercy of stuff just happening, no matter what” [p. 293]. What different ways of looking at life do these two positions represent? To what extent are they “at the mercy of stuff just happening”?

4. Thinking back over her relationship with her daughter, Liz imagines herself “bowing to Lauren, acknowledging Lauren. Had she somehow failed to do that? She couldn’t think of anything more important for a mother to do” [p. 127]. Why would nothing be more important than this kind of acknowledgment of one’s child? Why does Liz choose the word “bowing”?

5. After Lauren has returned from the hospital, Liz admits to Lauren that she and Sarabeth are “having some problems.” After that, Lauren occasionally asks her mother about her relationship with Sarabeth. Do you think Lauren is intentionally pressuring Liz to talk to her? Do you think it’s Lauren’s place to pressure her mother about Sarabeth?

6. Liz and Sarabeth have a long history together. Do you think that, without Lauren’s attempted suicide, Liz and Sarabeth would have ended up in the same place anyway?

7. Why do you think Lauren is drawn to Sarabeth? Do you think it has more to do with Sarabeth’s experience with depression and suicide, or with Sarabeth’s knowledge of art and her less-conventional life? Or something else entirely?

8. Why doesn’t Sarabeth call Liz immediately when she learns of Lauren’s suicide attempt? Is her reaction selfish or merely self-protective?

9. Why does Liz tell Sarabeth, “I’m not your mother” [p. 226]? Is she justified in saying this? How does it affect Sarabeth, immediately and ultimately?

10. Brody describes Sarabeth as “five feet of chaos” [p. 278]. In what ways is this statement true of Sarabeth?

11. What is the effect of tragedy—the suicide of Sarabeth’s mother and Lauren’s attempted suicide—occurring in such seemingly ordinary, and in Lauren’s case loving, families?

12. Near the end of the novel, after Joe has won at poker, he thinks: “The cards didn’t really matter. What mattered was how you played. What mattered was your face” [p. 314]. In what ways might this apply to the lives of the characters in the novel?

13. How are Liz and Brody able to repair their marriage? Why does Lauren’s attempted suicide create such anger and distance between them?

14. What do you think about the hostility between Sarabeth and Brody? Do you think they would have gotten along better if not for their relationships with Liz?

15. How are Liz and Sarabeth able to restore their friendship? Why is the gift of the bench so important?

16. What is the turning point in Lauren’s recovery? What is it that really begins to restore her optimism and interest in life?

17. Songs Without Words, though much of it is concerned with suffering, depression and suicide, ends happily, with the restoration of Liz and Sarabeth’s friendship and Lauren choosing to embrace rather than hide from life. Why does this ending feel right? How does Packer keep the novel from achieving too easy a closure?

18. What does Songs Without Words reveal about both the strength and fragility of human relationships?

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From Publishers Weekly
Packer follows her well-received first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier, with a richly nuanced meditation on the place of friendship in women's lives. Liz and Sarabeth's childhood friendship deepened following Sarabeth's mother's suicide when the girls were 16; now the two women are in their 40s and living in the Bay Area. Responsible mother-of-two Liz has come to see eccentric, bohemian Sarabeth, with her tendency to enter into inappropriate relationships with men, as more like another child than as a sister or mutually supportive friend. When Liz's teenage daughter, Lauren, perpetuates a crisis, Liz doubts her parenting abilities; Sarabeth is plunged into uncomfortable memories; and the hidden fragilities of what seemed a steadfast relationship come to the fore. Packer adroitly navigates Lauren's teen despair, Sarabeth's lonely longings and Liz's feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Although Liz's husband, Brody, and other men in the book are less than compelling, Packer gets deep into the perspectives of Liz, Sarabeth and Lauren, and follows out their conflicts with an unsentimental sympathy. (Sept.) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From The Washington Post
Reviewed by Carrie Brown

Ann Packer has been looking in our windows. The majority of readers of contemporary literary fiction in America -- especially fiction written by women -- are women themselves, and in her new novel, Songs Without Words, Packer has tapped into the things that worry many of these readers: love and satisfaction in their relationships, the emotional and psychological health of their offspring, the terrible possibility of spiritual and familial dissolution. Songs Without Words describes a childhood friendship tested by the challenges of adult lives that bear the friends along separate paths. Packer solidifies the reputation she established in the enormously successful The Dive from Clausen's Pier as an uncannily observant chronicler of contemporary American domestic life. Songs Without Words touches every nerve exposed by the solidly middle-class dilemmas of today's parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and lovers. There are no wars or plagues here, no suicide bombers or political turmoil. Instead, there is the fraught landscape of suburban life with its troubling questions about marriage, parenthood, friendship and fulfillment.

Packer is no ironist; she is not Claire Messud or Zadie Smith, whose most recent novels unspool under the cool panoramic gaze of a social critic. The characters in Packer's novels are not so much exposed as they are understood -- understood and seen, in all the psychological sense of that word. Packer is devoted to her characters, and it is her pleasure as a novelist -- and ours as her readers -- to watch these people move through the intensely familiar and intimate hours of their days and nights, spooning coffee into the Krups, taking a bath, crawling into bed. Packer follows them from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom (and to the car and the grocery store and Starbucks and the mall), and her pursuit is so unnervingly attentive that it becomes revelatory. Middle-of-the-night readers -- and there will be lots of them -- who cannot put down Songs Without Words will surely look up at the darkest hour with the sense that they are being watched.

The first paragraph of the novel is one of those lovely moments in fiction when a writer conjures in just a few sentences, with just a few images, the entire universe of the story that is about to unfold. The scene feels both like a presage of things to come and, in its quiet, painterly composition, like a metaphor -- of what, at first, we are not exactly sure, of course, but the world Packer evokes here is the familiar beauty-crossed-with-loneliness of the suburban evening. (Countless writers have been drawn to this moment, most famously perhaps James Agee in the opening scene of his novel A Death in the Family). Here is Packer's beginning:

"Each evening, the streetlights came on at dusk, and the view out the window changed, from barely glowing kitchens and TV rooms to the houses that contained them, and to the trees that sheltered the houses. It seemed to Sarabeth that for a little while there was a kind of balance out there, an equilibrium. But then, quickly, darkness came down from the sky, and soon the lit rooms returned to prominence, and finally everything else was black, and the world seemed limited to a few bright windows on a street in Palo Alto."

Sarabeth and Liz grew up across the street from each other, their girlhood friendship deepened by the tragedy of Sarabeth's mother's suicide when the girls were in high school. Packer offers their history in a brief prologue, and the first chapter of the novel finds Liz married with two teenaged children and contentedly immersed in her roles as wife and mother.

Sarabeth, on the other hand, is still single, uncertain about her life and pursuing a career as a house stager, someone who creates the ambiance of cozy domesticity in homes people are trying to sell, a job that seems like a painful destiny for someone whose own childhood was interrupted by domestic tragedy.

Of the two, Liz appears to have it all, but when her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren -- the novel's most heartbreaking portrait -- falls into the grip of adolescent depression, Liz's world falls apart. And so does Sarabeth's; Lauren's unhappiness brings Sarabeth dangerously near to the memory of her own mother, and her retreat from Liz is both cowardly and -- this is Packer's generosity at work -- completely understandable. The only thing that can drive old friends apart more surely than death is unhappiness, and it seems that Liz and Sarabeth's estrangement will separate them permanently. "They all seemed irrevocably distant, the people she knew," Sarabeth thinks, "as far away as Earth was from the moon." There are some novels that show us the "other," and in doing so expand our ideas about humanity. Songs Without Words is a novel that shows us -- tenderly, and with a full awareness of the precious dignity and indignity of human experience -- ourselves.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Bookmarks Magazine
Ann Packer stunned critics with her debut novel, the acclaimed Dive From Clausen's Pier (2002). Songs inevitably raised comparisons to this first novel's exploration of how crises of untold proportions test love and lead to guilt, despair, and morally ambiguous actions. Critics agreed that Packer deftly unravels the emotional intensity that accompanies the love between two adult friends and offers shrewd insight into human behavior. However, Songs didn't garner quite the same praise as Dive. A few critics cited stereotyped male characters, uneven third-person perspectives, and a predictable story line that gets bogged down in quotidian details. All reviewers, however, praised the characterization of Lauren-and her all-too-real teen anguish.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Booklist
Packer was widely praised for her debut, the best-selling Dive from Clausen's Pier (2002). Her sophomore effort is slow-moving but ambitious and relates the lifelong friendship of Liz and Sarabeth. When her mom committed suicide 30 years ago, Sarabeth moved in with Liz, finding a safe haven with Liz's warm and nurturing family. But now it's Liz who is in need of comfort, following the suicide attempt of her depressed 15-year-old daughter, Lauren. For Sarabeth, however, the traumatic incident triggers old memories and "distant music, familiar and sad. A song without words." She doesn't call or visit for days afterward, and Liz feels shut out and let down. All of their dissimilarities emerge: Liz is the staid stay-at-home suburban mom, while Sarabeth is the artsy, single urbanite. Meanwhile, Liz's husband, Brody, and son, Joe, deal with Lauren's illness in totally different ways, leading to a rift in the marriage and the family. Packer is most interested in the emotional arc of a troubled friendship and the debilitating nature of depression. As a result, her plot lacks momentum, with many paragraphs devoted to the more mundane aspects of life, right down to the number of abdominal reps Liz does in her Pilates class. Still, the friends' ultimate reconciliation and Lauren's emotional breakthrough provide some touching scenes and a welcome resolution. Although it's not on a par with her debut, this flawed but sensitive novel should appeal to fans of Sue Miller and Alice Sebold. Wilkinson, Joanne --This text refers to theHardcover edition. 

Praise for Ann Packer’s Songs Without Words

“Songs Without Words
 is an eloquent, on occasion harrowing account of friendship and its limits, the mind and its fatal fragilities, and the saving graces of human nature. Packer captures mental pathologies exceptionally well and writes beautifully about despair and love and how they travel together throughout a lifetime.”
—Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind 

“A hauntingly believable portrait of grief. . . . [Packer] shows us that grief is not, for better or for worse, a solitary affair. . . . Slowly and carefully, Packer shows her characters putting their lives back together after a traumatizing blow. . . . The two old friends’ moving reconciliation closes a quiet narrative whose emotions, we come to realize, run deep and true. . . . Commendably ambitious and ultimately rewarding.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Welcome back to Packer country, a richly psychological terrain where finding the balance between responsibility to others and obligation to oneself is never obvious or easy. . . . Engrossing, forgiving and quietly wise, Songs never makes a false step as Packer keeps both the pages and her readers’ minds turning until the very end.”

“As in The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, Packer makes the ripples from one act so involving, you can’t pull away.”
Good Housekeeping

“A richly nuanced meditation on the place of friendship in women’s lives. . . . Packer gets deep into the perspectives of Liz, Sarabeth and Lauren, and follows out their conflicts with an unsentimental sympathy.”
Publishers Weekly

“Packer writes about adult female friendship with a nuanced understanding of its emotional intensity. . . . One of Packer’s strengths as a writer is her ability to subtly shi... --This text refers to the Kindle Edition edition. 

“Packer's voice [has] extraordinary authority. . . . Compassionate, rich in solace.” 
The New York Times Book Review

“Engrossing, forgiving and quietly wise. . . . Packer keeps both the pages and her readers' minds turning until the very end." 

“Packer has an unnerving ability to gaze steadily at feelings you can barely acknowledge even to yourself. . . . You are grateful for Packer's insight, refreshed and comforted by the depth of her empathy.” 

Songs Without Words is an eloquent, on occasion harrowing account of friendship and its limits, the mind and its fatal fragilities, and the saving graces of human nature. Packer captures mental pathologies exceptionally well and writes beautifully about despair and love and how they travel together throughout a lifetime.” 
—Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind 

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Ann Packer received the Great Lakes Book Award for The Dive from Clausen's Pier, which was a national bestseller. She is also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories. She is a past recipient of a James Michener award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and other magazines, as well as in Prize Stories 1992: The O. Henry Awards. She lives in northern California with her family.

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