Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer

From Ann Packer, author of the New York Times best-selling novels The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words, a collection of burnished, emotionally searing stories, framed by two unforgettable linked narratives that express the transformation of a single family over the course of a lifetime.

A wife struggles to make sense of her husband’s sudden disappearance. A mother mourns her teenage son through the music collection he left behind. A woman shepherds her estranged parents through her brother’s wedding and reflects on the year her family collapsed. A young man comes to grips with the joy—and vulnerability—of fatherhood. And, in the masterly opening novella, two teenagers from very different families forge a sustaining friendship, only to discover the disruptive and unsettling power of sex.

Ann Packer is one of our most talented archivists of family life, with its hidden crevasses and unforeseeable perils, and in these stories she explores the moral predicaments that define our social and emotional lives, the frailty of ordinary grace, and the ways in which we are shattered and remade by loss. With Swim Back to Me, she delivers shimmering psychological precision, unfailing intelligence, and page-turning drama: her most enticing work yet.

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Ann Packer is the author of two best-selling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’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. Also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, she lives in northern California with her family.

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From our Q&A with the author

Q: Tell us about the title, Swim Back to Me.
A: The phrase “Swim Back to Me” appears as a title of a song in one of the stories, “Molten,” in which a mother grieves the loss of her teenage son by listening to his music. I wrote this story in the late nineties, during a period in my life when I was rediscovering the world of rock and roll through the mix tapes a writing student of mine was making for me.  It had been a decade or so since I’d paid attention to much music beyond Raffi’s songs for children, and when I began listening to the Pixies and Pavement and Superchunk, I was overwhelmed by the power of the songs and the enchantment I felt listening to them.  I wrote the story under the influence of that enchantment, using a mother’s loss as the emotional setting to explore the transformative power of an intense aesthetic experience.

Fast forward ten or eleven years, and I was finishing the book and needed a title.  I wanted to avoid naming the book after one of the individual pieces, since that would have emphasized a part over the whole, and I wanted something that worked thematically for the entire book.  I was really at a loss, casting about, picking the brains of friends, when the idea of using the phrase Swim Back to Me suddenly popped into my mind.  As with many ideas that later become important, I can remember exactly where I was when I had the thought—on a highway in Auburn, CA, researching the setting of another of the stories, “Dwell Time”—and what made the phrase so powerful was the combination of darkness and light that it contained:  the addressee is gone but is capable of returning. For me, that spoke to the book’s themes, and in particular to the idea that new connections and ties can only be made with an eye to what’s come before.

Q: Let’s talk about some of those themes. Unlike your last two books, bestselling novels The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words, this one isn’t unified by a single plot.  What sensibility joins these six shorter works?
A: I’m drawn to writing about people who find themselves in situations that challenge their assumptions about who they are and how they can and do live their lives. Richard, the narrator of “Walk for Mankind,” the novella that opens the book, is living the somewhat isolated life of a young teenager trying to make sense of his family’s disintegration and the ways in which it has changed his life. The novella is about what happens when, through a new family, he discovers a different world, more vibrant than any he’s known, and he has the opportunity and the task of figuring out if he wants to give it a try. In “Her Firstborn,” the impending birth of a baby unfolds against the aftermath of another child’s death.

Loss is obviously a big theme for me, and in these stories my characters deal both with loss of the actual—divorce, the deaths of loved ones—and also loss of their dreams, by which I mean the stories they’ve told themselves about how life will go. And lest this seem grim, I mean the loss both of positive stories—stories of long and happy marriages, for example—and also negative ones, stories in which pessimism has played such a central part that good fortune and possibility can be so surprising as to be initially uncomfortable. Another way to put all of this is that I’m fascinated by deception, both the kind we practice on each other and the kind we feel so compelled to practice on ourselves.

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