Dive from Clausen's Pier (Packer)

The Dive from Clausen's Pier 
Ann Packer, 2002
Random House
432 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375727139

A riveting novel about loyalty and self-knowledge, and the conflict between who we want to be to others and who we must be for ourselves.

Carrie Bell has lived in Wisconsin all her life. She’s had the same best friend, the same good relationship with her mother, the same boyfriend, Mike, now her fiancé, for as long as anyone can remember. It’s with real surprise she finds that, at age twenty-three, her life has begun to feel suffocating. She longs for a change, an upheaval, for a chance to begin again.

That chance is granted to her, terribly, when Mike is injured in an accident. Now Carrie has to question everything she thought she knew about herself and the meaning of home. She must ask: How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or of weakness to walk away from someone in need?

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier reminds us how precarious our lives are and how quickly they can be divided into before and after, whether by random accident or by the force of our own desires. It begins with a disaster that could happen, out of the blue, in anybody’s life, and it forces us to ask how we would bear up in the face of tragedy and what we know, or think we know, about our deepest allegiances.

Elegantly written and ferociously paced, emotionally nuanced and morally complex, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier marks the emergence of a prodigiously gifted new novelist. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Stanford, California, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; M.F.A., University of Iowa
Awards—James Michener Award, National Endowment for
   the Arts Fellowship
Currently—lives in Northern California

Packer's late-blossoming career as a novelist may illustrate the adage that good things come to those who wait. She was in her twenties when she attended the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, and in her early forties when her first novel was published. The Dive From Clausen's Pier, which was ten years in the writing, debuted at no. 9 on the New York Times bestseller list and was hailed by critics as "a reflective and probing first novel" (Kirkus Reviews).

The book is narrated by a young woman named Carrie, whose urge to break up with her fiance is complicated after he is paralyzed in an accident, leaving Carrie with the choice of whether to take care of him or embark on a new life of her own. The primary theme of the novel, as Packer described it in an chat, is "the interplay between the need to be true to oneself and the need and desire to be loyal to the people one loves"—and therein may lie part of the book's broad appeal, given that everyone faces some conflicts between their own needs and those of their loved ones. The Dive From Clausen's Pier was the first pick for Good Morning America's book club, "Read This," and was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Though most readers had never heard of Packer before Clausen's Pier, she had long since embarked on what Publishers Weekly termed a "Cadillac career": she earned her bachelor's degree in English literature from Yale, then worked in the New York publishing business (writing blurbs for paperbacks) before receiving her M.F.A. at Iowa. She also spent two years in Madison, Wisconsin, on a writing fellowship; published stories in The New Yorker, Ploughshares and other magazines; and received an O. Henry Award, a James Michener award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. A 1994 story collection, Mendocino and Other Stories, was well-received and is being brought back into print in January 2003.

Since her first novel's publication, Packer's publicity schedule has kept her busy, but as the mother of two children, she's already adept at juggling writing with other demands. "The hard thing for me is to say no to people," she said in an interview in the Australian Women's Weekly. "Asking me to help in the classroom. Or friends saying, 'Let's have lunch.' It's hard to say, 'No, I’m not going to do that, I need to write.' But somehow I balance it all, I put it all together in a way that works. I fit in what I can. Some weeks there's no writing and some weeks are full of writing."

The Dive from Clausen's Pier went through nine drafts during the ten years Packer spent writing it. The biggest change came about halfway through the writing process, when she switched from a third-person narrator to first-person.

• In an interview on her publisher's website, Packer mentioned that the story of Clausen's Pier was "loosely autobiographical," based in part on her childhood experiences after her father was paralyzed due to a stroke. Another autobiographical element: Packer, like her protagonist Carrie, enjoys sewing.

• Packer grew up in California, where she currently lives with her husband, an architect, and their two children. Her brother, George Packer, is also a writer of fiction and non-fiction books. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
At the start of this quietly engrossing début novel, twenty-three-year-old Carrie Bell is tiring of her stalled life in Madison, Wisconsin, and her bland, relentlessly loving boyfriend of eight years' standing. When a dive into the local reservoir leaves him paralyzed from the neck down, she flees to Manhattan, where she takes shelter with a group of wannabe artists in a decaying Chelsea brownstone and falls for an elusive older man. The journey is a familiar one, but Packer fleshes it out with a naturalist's vigilance for detail, so that her characters seem observed rather than invented, and capable of mistakes that the author may never have intended. The result is genuine suspense, as Carrie feels her way toward the truth about herself, and what it means to be a moral being.
The New Yorker

Packer's engrossing debut novel begins without ostentation. On Memorial Day, Carrie Bell and her fiance, Mike Mayer, drive out to Clausen's Pier for their annual ritual, a picnic with their friends, a trip they make the way a middle-aged couple might, in grudging silence. Before their resentments can be aired, Mike dives into too shallow water, suffering injuries that change their lives. If Mike survives, he will survive as a quadriplegic, and Carrie faces unexpected responsibilities. Ultimately, Carrie does what is both understandable and unthinkable. She leaves her hometown of Madison, Wis., and shows up on the doorstep of a friend in New York City. There she discovers a different world, different friends and a different self. The hovering question what will Carrie do? Abandon Mike or return to him? generates genuine suspense. Packer portrays her characters both New Yorkers and Madisonites deftly, and her scenes unfold with uncommon clarity. But if Packer has a keen eye, she has an even keener ear. The dialogue is usually witty; more important, it is always surprising, as if the characters were actually thinking one of the reasons they become as familiar to the reader as childhood friends. The recipient of several awards, Packer is also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories. Clearly, she has honed her skills writing short fiction. What is unexpected is the assurance she brings to a larger canvas. In quiet but beautiful prose, Packer tells a complex and subtly constructed story of friendship, love and the hold the past has on the present. This is the sort of book one reads dying to know what happens to the characters, but loves for its wisdom: it sees the world with more clarity than you do.
Publishers Weekly

When a young woman's fiancé dives into shallow water and becomes a quadriplegic, her future dramatically changes as well. Because she had doubts about the future of their long-term relationship before the accident, she is faced with a moral dilemma: be the long-suffering, loving, tragic girlfriend or pick up the pieces of her own life. First she chooses the expected role, but when the pressure becomes too much, she escapes to New York and makes a new life. How she reconciles her pre-accident and post-accident lives and deals with her guilt is the theme of the book. Two interesting aspects of the novel are the contrast between her Madison, Wisconsin life and her New York life and how important sewing is to her and to what happens to her. It's a little risky of the author to give her young heroine an interest as untrendy as sewing without making her seem a throwback to an earlier time. Instead, the reader will probably view her as a courageous and interesting character. The ending is a bit perplexing, but thought provoking. When an author leaves the reader thinking about the future of the characters, as if they have lives beyond the final page, that's a sign of good writing, and this book is full of good writing. Recommended for advanced students and adults.
Nola Theiss - KLIATT

Discussion Questions
1. Why is Carrie unable to cry until Mike awakes from the coma (p. 1)?

2. What effect does Rooster have on Carrie's emotional turmoil during part one? Is Rooster fair in his attack on Carrie outside the library (p. 76)?

3. When Carrie and Mike see the bride and groom on TV in the hospital, Carrie thinks: "If his next words were Let's get a minister over here and get married tomorrow, I would say yes" (p. 91) What feelings are driving her at this point? What might have happened to Carrie and Mike if Mike had persisted in getting married after the accident?

4. What does Mike mean when he says: "It was like we were already married–we'd gone too far" (p. 370)? What went wrong or changed in Carrie's and Mike's relationship? Did Carrie or Mike change, or did their circumstances change, or both?

5. Carrie tells the reader: "For him [Mike], it was all about the future. For me, the past" (p. 69). How does Carrie's past inform her present? What do each of the three memories of her father mean for Carrie (pp. 28-9)? What Carrie does not remember about her father is "nearly infinite.... A whole book of things, an entire encyclopedia—a volume that I tried and tried to fill at the Mayers’" (p. 29). Might Carrie have stayed with Mike—and the Mayers—for longer than she would have because she was trying to fill the void left by her father? What influence does Carrie's memory of her father have on her decision to leave Madison—and then, ultimately, to return? By returning, is Carrie escaping her father's legacy?

6. When she leaves Madison, Carrie seems to believe that people are defined by the actions or perceptions of other people. She says: "Because we were caretakers of each other's habits and expressions, weren't we, witnesses who didn't just see but who gave existence?" (p. 128). Remembering Kilroy's touch, she says, "How extraordinary...that someone could touch you and make you into something" (p. 330). Carrie's mother asserts that "people aren't defined by what they do so much as they define what they do" (p. 318). Are people defined by what they do, or by how others perceive them, or by neither? Does Carrie's opinion on this topic change by the novel's end?

7. How does Mike's family react to his accident? How do his friends react? Are these reactions typical or expected in the face of such a tragedy? What about Carrie's outward behavior in reaction to Mike's tragedy makes her behavior so surprising to their families and friends? Are there typical or expected ways people react to tragedies generally, and what do deviations from this expected behavior signify?

8. Carrie explains her love for sewing: "It was the inexorability of it that appealed to me, how a length of fabric became a group of cut-out pieces that gradually took on the shape of a garment" (p. 11). How is the process of sewing, and Carrie's own projects with expensive silk fabrics, a metaphor for Carrie's emotional evolution? Does playing pool have a similar meaning for Kilroy?

9. Is it Jamie's call that propels Carrie to finally return home, or is some other event the catalyst for her return? Does guilt or obligation play a role in Carrie's decision to stay in Wisconsin? Is she trying to prove something to herself or to others? Is she acting truly selflessly? Is she settling, giving up or being true to herself?

10. Could Carrie properly be called a heroine? What would have been the heroic path for her to take?

11. Carrie poses the question: "How much do we owe the people we love?" When she leaves Madison, she seems to view the answer as an all or nothing proposition: "What I had discovered was that I couldn't give up my life for Mike—that's how I saw it at the time, that's the choice I thought I had to make. And because I couldn't give up everything, I also thought I couldn't give up anything" (p. 128). Does Carrie see her answer differently at the end of the novel? What does Carrie give up for Mike? Did she need Kilroy in order to have something other than herself to give up for Mike? What does Kilroy owe his parents? Can love be separate from obligation? How might Jamie's or Rooster's or Kilroy's definition of love differ from Carrie's definition?

12. How do the tones and styles of part one and part three reflect Carrie's different state of mind before her time in New York City and afterward?

13. What is Carrie looking for in a relationship? What characteristics of Kilroy attract Carrie that were or are absent in Mike?

14. Is Carrie's resolution of her relationship with Kilroy satisfying? By "being there" in Carrie's life, what does Kilroy teach Carrie about herself? What does Lane teach Carrie about herself?

15. Is the resolution to the mystery surrounding Kilroy satisfying? Is "the tragedy named Mike" different for Carrie than for Kilroy (p. 359)?

16. Why are the minor characters of Harvey (Mike's new roommate in the hospital) and Harvey's wife (pp. 199—200) so significant to the novel's themes of love, obligation and choices?

17. Mike and Rooster theorize about the irony in names such as the dentist, Dr. Richard Moler, or the orthopedist, Dr. Bonebrake (pp. 18—19). Do the names in the novel—e.g., Carrie Bell, Kilroy, Rooster—have any ironic meaning?

18. While Mike literally dives from Clausen's Pier, who figuratively dives from Clausen's Pier? What metaphoric images does the title conjure up for the reader before and after reading the novel?

19. Envision an inverted version of The Dive from Clausen's Pier written from Mike's point of view in which Carrie had been the one to have had the accident. How might their lives have played out differently? What does this exercise reveal about their relationship and Carrie's character?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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