“Is a person an accumulation of past selves, or made new over and over again?” This is the question that plagues 23-year-old Carrie Bell, the narrator and protagonist of Ann Packer’s riveting debut novel, “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.”
Carrie and Mike have been sweethearts since high school. Now engaged, they can easily envision their future together: a nine-year rehearsed companionship set against the all-too-familiar backdrop of Madison, Wis. But their once-passionate romance has begun to dissipate. “As we go, something is lost: the new becomes old … and then forgotten.”
In a desperate attempt to win back Carrie’s adoration, Mike makes a reckless dive into the shallow reservoir of Clausen’s Pier. He crushes his neck and spinal cord, and emerges from a four-week coma to a diagnosis that will change everything he and Carrie have ever known – Mike is a quadriplegic.
The life Carrie and Mike had once envisioned together is shattered in a matter of seconds. Carrie can’t bring herself to visit Mike in his condition. It is heart wrenching to see the boy she once knew, lying limply on a hospital bed, entangled in a web of tubes and machines. Yet she knows that he needs her support now more than ever. She soothes her mind with a personal mantra, convincing and reassuring herself of her devotion to Mike. They can still have a future together. Everything is not lost. She must love him, as she says, ”if not more, then better than ever, clearly, without the fog of my own wants and the tedium of needing to be loved back.” However, this attempt to put the pieces back together is merely a fruitless projection of pity and guilt.
Unable to share the burden of Mike’s disability, Carrie leaves behind everything she has ever known and begins anew in New York City. She quickly acclimates to the fast-paced lifestyle, welcoming excitement and vicissitude to shroud her pain and uncertainty. Carrie is quickly consumed by a new relationship with 40-year-old Kilroy, whose mystifying attitude and lack of emotions are a strong antithesis to Mike’s genuine sincerity and kind heart.
“It seems to me that we learn each other in stages: facts first, meanings later, like explorers who stumble on to bodies of water without knowing at first whether they’ve encountered fog-shrouded rivers or vast oceans,” Carrie muses. Throughout her attempt to delve into Kilroy’s secrets, Carrie can’t keep herself from comparing her new urban beau with the only other man she has ever loved.
Packer carries us through Carrie’s struggle, ultimately revealing her surprising decision in the final pages of the novel.
The author has an unparalleled gift for character development, evident in Carrie’s inherent attempt to find resolution and comfort in the face of misfortune. Through Carrie’s relationships with other richly developed characters, the reader cannot help but associate oneself with the quandary at hand, constantly asking how he or she would respond to such a catastrophe. Packer is able to develop an engaging story without compromising the eloquent writing for which her short stories are renowned. “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier” is a must-read novel that illuminates the meaning of friendship, loyalty and unconditional love.