Songs without Words is a novel mainly about the relationships between women. It is set between San Francisco and Berkeley, and the main characters are Liz and Sarabeth, now in mid-life, and who have known each other since they were in high school together. When she was a teenager, her mother committed suicide, and her father moved away, so Sarabeth moved in with Liz and her family. They have been best friends for decades. Now Liz is married and has two children of her own, Lauren and Joe. Lauren is a moody teenager, who is normally a good student, but recently she has been having problems at school. Liz and her husband Brody have been going through a difficult time in their marriage. The family plunges into full crisis when Lauren makes a suicide attempt.
Once she is out of the emergency room, she goes to a clinic for adolescents with psychiatric problems. However, Lauren does not at first accept that there is anything wrong with her, and although she took and overdose and slashed her wrists, she says it was an accident. She starts on antidepressants, group therapy and individual therapy, but she is very resistant. But she gradually makes progress. Of course her parents are terribly upset by her suicide attempt, and they have a hard time talking to the rest of the family about it. Furthermore, Sarabeth is utterly unable to cope with the news, and although she is close to Lauren, finds it almost impossible to speak to Liz, let alone be of any help. The friendship between Liz and Sarabeth starts to crumble.
Sarabeth lives on her own in Berkeley, and she is very lonely. She recently finished an affair with a married man, and she feels almost no guilt at endangering another relationship. Instead she wishes the relationship had never ended. She is a creative person, and she is in some ways thoughtful, but she is also very self-centered and preoccupied with her own world. Despite having had many difficulties in her own life, she is a hard character to empathize with. Indeed, judging from the mixed comments of readers at Amazon.com, none of the characters win widespread sympathy.
One of the problems with the novel is that Lauren's depression never seems vivid. She jumps from finding it difficult to get up in the morning and being upset that she was embarrassed in front of a boy to trying to kill herself. Maybe that is how it looks from the outside, but most people who make suicide attempts think about it first, and Packer has given her readers access to Lauren's thoughts previously, so it isn't clear why she gives her readers so little warning about Lauren's state of mind. Furthermore, her descriptions of the adolescent psychiatric unit is cursory and gives readers little insight into the treatment process. She is more concerned to describe the thoughts of Liz and Sarabeth and the problems of the adults in the story.
Cassandra Campbell reads the unabridged audiobook in a steady subdued voice, adding to the somber tone of the book. It matches the novel, but it lends an unsympathetic feel to the work. The work never gets boring, and the reading has some energy, but it is not engrossing.
Packer is a talented writer, and her first novel The Dive from Clausen's Pier won high praise. This novel is structured well and manages to show a variety of viewpoints. Its examination of adolescent major depression and its treatment is unusual and notable for that reason. Nevertheless, ultimately its portrayal of people affected by suicide and depression sheds little light on what it is like to come to terms with these experiences.
Songs Without Words (Hardcover)
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.