In most novels, there is a moment that irrevocably changes the lives of the characters who inhabit the pages of the book. In high school English classes, that moment is labeled “the crisis,” and usually it takes many pages of exposition to build to this moment. This is not the case in Ann Packer’s first novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. In this story, the life-changing event takes place in a three-page preface before chapter 1, and everything else that happens in the book is in response to one tragic moment.
Carrie Bell is everybody’s girl next door. At twenty- three, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin, the town where she was born. She gets along with her mother; she has a great boyfriend, Mike, to whom she is engaged; and she has many friends, the same friends she has had all of her life. Until very recently, this has been sufficient for Carrie, but now she has begun to think about the big world and about how much she wants to experience it. Her frustration is clear:
[T]he Spartans had been our high school mascot. That we were a year out of college and still making Spartans jokes seemed to me to be a symptom of whatever it was we all had, whatever disease it was that had us doing the exact same things we’d always done, and with the exact same people.
When she realizes that she has to keep a mental list to remind her what she loves about Mike, she knows that she is going to have to call off the engagement. Before she can do so, however, Mike dives off a pier into shallow water, changing both of their lives forever.
As Mike lingers in a coma for a month, Carrie struggles with her conflicting feelings. Her friends and Mike’s family expect her to “be there” for Mike. Rooster, Mike’s best friend, is particularly angry with Carrie for not crying or making clear her devotion to Mike. Carrie, on the other hand, who was feeling suffocated before the accident, now finds herself both numbed and panicked that the rest of her life might be devoted to her comatose fiancé. At the same time, her memories of Mike as well as her love for him convince her that there must be something terribly wrong with her that she cannot give what everyone seems to expect and want.
When Mike awakens, things go from bad to worse for Carrie. Mike’s mother and his doctor make it clear to Carrie that her presence and unflagging support is necessary for Mike’s recovery. Mike is desperate for her love but also knows that she has drifted from him. Carrie’s response is to buy fabric and begin sewing. She spends hours and hours making curtains, lingerie, and clothing, anything to occupy her time, her hands, and her body, and to give her an excuse for not visiting the hospital. This response infuriates her friends and mystifies Mike’s family.
Carrie herself is mystified. It is as if she is watching herself shift from devoted girlfriend to disinterested stranger and back again. When Mike’s sister asks Carrie if she still wants to marry Mike, the question haunts her: “Do you want to? Do you want to? Do you want to? By the time I got home from the hospital that night the question had permeated the very air around me.” Indeed, it is this question that forces Carrie to confront the crucial issue: How can she be what everyone (including herself) wants her to be, and yet still have any life of her own?
I knew I could continue, in Rooster’s words, to be there for Mike; I knew I could wait out his sadness or at least that part of it that was the most acute. I could stand by and applaud as he slowly, slowly learned to get around in his wheelchair, how to use what little function he could marshal from his hands to eat, to help dress himself. But what then? Be his caretaker? His cook, nurse, helper, chauffeur, attendant? And his wife, somehow, too? And also myself? Who might that be?
Carrie seems unable to answer this question. When she runs into an old friend, Simon Rhodes, a gay man who now lives in New York, a series of events is set into motion that offer her the escape she longs for. Without saying good-bye to anyone, she packs her car and takes off for New York.
In New York, Carrie moves into the house Simon shares with several other people and begins a new life, far removed from the life she has led until now. She begins an affair with an older man, Kilroy, and takes classes in fashion design. Meanwhile, back in Madison, Mike is devastated and Carrie’s friends are...
(The entire section is 1806 words.)