Swim Back to Me
by Ann Packer

Knopf, 2011. ISBN 978-1-400-04404-7.
Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Posted on 06/10/2011

Anthologies/Collections; Fiction: Literary

Families are fragile. Ann Packer explores the unusual, aberrant, and occasionally normal relationships of people living in Palo Alto, CA, the town where she grew up as the daughter of two Stanford professors. Packer's exploration of family tragedies and the ways they alter relationships are at the heart of the five stories and one novella in her newest book, Swim Back to Me.

In the novella "Walk for Mankind," Sasha Horowitz meets her neighbor, Richard Appleby, on their way home from eighth grade class. She is the daughter of a professor new to Stanford; he is the son of a recently separated professor. Sasha has a vibrancy and independence that fascinates Richard. Part child and part woman, she is reaching beyond the troubles in her home to find her unique identity.

In "Molten," a grieving mother is obsessed with her dead son's CDs as she tries to understand how he could lose his life while saving a little boy. In "Jump," a Hispanic boy rejects his upper class Atherton heritage and latches onto a Cholo identity. After his boss, Carolee, meets his dictatorial father, an Anglo doctor, she understands his reasoning. In "Her Firstborn," Lise explains to her Lamaze class that she lost her first baby to crib death.

Each story is rich, dramatic, touching, intelligent, and tender. Packer examines the psychological ramifications of people's needs and choices with depth and precision. Her stories are empathetic and filled with a fascinating combination of regrets, power-struggles, and yearning for hope and joy that intensifies with each story.

Swim Back to Me is a rich account of life in Palo Alto. Packer peels back the layers of pretense which helped me see both the town and the people in a deeper, more revealing way. She invited me into dark secrets and hidden truths in this enticing and engrossing collection.

Ann Packer is the author of two best-selling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clauson's Pier, the latter of which received a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award, and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vogue, and Real Simple. She lives in northern California with her family. Visit her website.

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