Three of my girlfriends sent me a care package when I was on bedrest with my youngest, Bug. One of the books included was Ann Packer's debut novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. One of my girlfriends decided that I'd love the book simply because the main character reminded her of me, and I have to admit that I was gravely insulted after I read the book until she explained her reasons.
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::: The Title Dive :::
The Dive from Clausen's Pier begins with the dive of the title as a prologue; Carrie and her fiance Mike are having trouble in their relationship, but they go to a Memorial Day picnic anyway, barely speaking. There is no fighting between them, only a sense of slipping away. Mike decides to dive off the pier, whether to get Carrie's attention or to break the tension is anyone's guess, and so the story begins as Mike breaks his neck.
The novel takes place over the course of a year, although I'd swear it feels much longer. Packer does an excellent job of conveying the interminable weight that Carrie and the rest of Mike's friends and family are feeling as the days click by with Mike still in a coma. Everyone is desperate for him to make it, to survive, but the reality is that even if he does survive, he'll be a quadriplegic. And of course, Carrie has an even heavier burden; with a relationship already going south, what do you do when your fiance ends up a cripple?
Even once Mike wakes up to his new life, Carrie feels the distance growing between her and everyone around her: her mother, her best friend, even Mike's best friend. Everyone seems to want something from her that she doesn't seem able or willing to give. Up to this point, Carrie was a believable heroine: a normal young woman caught in an untenable position. At this point, however, Packer apparently switched from downers to probably crack, because the frenzy of annoying Carrie begins.
::: A New York State of Mind :::
In the middle of the night, Carrie packs up some things from her apartment, jumps in her car, and just starts driving. Where to? Well, she ran into a guy she knew peripherally in high school not long after Mike's accident, and of course, they became great friends, this gay man living in New York, and plain old Carrie still living in their hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. As if that doesn't stretch the believability enough, Packer has Carrie hunt down a man she met at a dinner party. Nothing more than the friend of a fellow guest's brother, she remembers everything about him, and literally stalks the bar he mentions at the party (because we all mention the bars we drink at by name when talking to people who've never been to the city we live in, don't ya know) until she finally meets up with him. He has no friends, and never seems to talk to anyone but Carrie and the people she lives with, and yet Carrie doesn't find this odd?
I won't give away any more of the plot lest I destroy the "surprise" of the all-too-predictable ending, but let it suffice to say that if you didn't start hating Carrie the second her self-pitying ego jumped in the car and read, by the time the book ends, you'll wish you could run her over with a New York subway train, and then back up to make sure the job was complete.
::: And This Is Me? :::
I found Carrie infuriating. The position she found herself in after Mike's accident was painful, but at the same time, I had little respect for her when she was so obviously in a relationship just because she was afraid to leave it. Even when I forgave her that, rather than be an adult about it, she skulks off into the night, not even letting her mother know where she is for days, much less her best friend. Poor Carrie. Her fiance broke his neck. She was stressed. I honestly kept waiting for Carrie to develop stigmata so PAINFUL was her suffering.
To top it off, Packer gives Carrie an absentee father (and it was so close to the background in Good In Bed that I kept thinking Carrie was gong to run into her father in New York) and a counselor mother for that extra dose of psychobabble and exposition on people's motivations.
From Carrie's inability to look at a single person or thing outside of her own navel-gazing to the contrivances in each and every situation, I felt insulted at my girlfriend's original assessment, and I called her on it. Her response? Carrie's obsession with fabric and sewing, and her near adoration for her Bernina sewing machine reminded her of me. At that point, I laughed, since some of the few parts of the book I honestly enjoyed were Carrie's fabric store forays and marathon sewing sessions. Most of us who sew or quilt will confess to a secret stash of fabric, bought because we just couldn't live without the fabric, even with no immediate plan for its use. That much of Carrie I could see, even her obsessive creations at every point of stress. That much of the character made sense to me.
Therein lies the rub. Packer really did seem to have a great book starting. Her writing style makes you get involved in the characters, and she has an excellent sense of how people interact, or don't interact. Situations that would certainly be awkward in real life FEEL awkward in Packer's world. Many of the somewhat minor characters are fleshed out enough that you have a real sense of who they are as people; they aren't just cardboard props. Where The Dive from Clausen's Pier goes so horribly wrong is in giving us a central character who is utterly unsympathetic, and leaves the reader just wanting to start punching her and not stop. With no sympathy for Carrie, the book falls flat, contrary to some of the rave reviews it got when it was released.
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