By Ann Packer
Knopf, 370 pp., $24
Things were going if not great then well enough for Carrie Bell and Mike Mayer the day Mike took a dive off Clausen's Pier and wound up a quadriplegic.
Clausen's Pier: at Clausen's Reservoir, an hour's drive north of Madison. Madison: home of the University of Wisconsin, where Carrie and Mike had graduated college just a couple of years before. Madison: Carrie's and Mike's hometown as well, with Mike still living with his parents. Carrie and Mike: junior high sweethearts since the day Carrie, age 14, spotted Mike on the school's ice-hockey team and the two became a couple made for each other. Marriage: only a matter of time, sometime but when? Mike: without much thought, taking a job at a bank. Carrie: at her library job with no greater thought and wearing Mike's engagement ring. All of which makes Carrie's spur-of-the-moment decision one night to pack a duffel bag and quit Mike's bedside, quit Madison entirely, and head in her car for New York all the more a mystery -- to Mike, to Carrie's mother, to Mike's parents, to Carrie's best friend Jamie, even to Carrie herself.
Carrie's decision: not as spur-of-the-moment as those around her might think. And not so much a mystery when one considers Carrie's unhappiness, ill-defined but unmistakable and simmering for some time. Carrie had been aware of it, Mike had been aware of it, and Mike's accident brought that unhappiness into full if no more understandable view. Plus, Carrie'd met a guy, a New Yorker named Kilroy who was visiting Madison, one evening at a dinner party, an evening when Carrie couldn't bring herself to make one more hospital visit and play wife-to-be to an invalid, a role she was finding she couldn't fill. This guy Kilroy was sharp, worldly. He'd sized Carrie up -- hometown girl, no goody-two-shoes maybe but so Midwestern -- without putting her needlessly down. Plus, Carrie'd run into another guy, a high school friend from Madison named Simon who'd gone to Yale and come out of the closet and from Yale had moved to New York. Simon, she found, she could talk to, be honest with. There was indeed a world out there. Carrie would join it. She'd look up Kilroy.
She moves in with Simon and the dilapidated brownstone in Chelsea that he shares with a houseful of roommates working to make something of their dreams. She halfway moves in with Kilroy, who shows her a native New Yorker's Manhattan and gives her a taste of the big-city life she's been craving and wasn't getting in her college town hometown.
Something about Kilroy though ... he's smart as hell but hellbent on achieving ... not a thing. He knows New York like the back of his hand, but his apartment's a blank: whitewashed walls, standard furniture signifying nothing. His knowledge of history, science, and literature, pool-playing and fine cooking is considerable, but he settles for temp work and latter-day Marxist pronouncements. He's mum on the subject of his parents and equally mum on the subject of his given name. When he reveals his age, even less about him adds up, but, hey, Carrie's crazy about the guy -- great in bed, a little aloof sometimes -- and willing to put off, to her own bewilderment, the questions put to her by those back home. This isn't the Carrie they knew and loved, but it's the Carrie whose arrival's been overdue. And it took a departure to make that arrival possible.
No departure, though, from this: Carrie's abiding love, be it in Madison or Manhattan, for sewing, for the feel and measure of fabrics, her joy at working her sewing machine, working from patterns, fashioning new patterns. And in Ann Packer's meticulously observed first novel, The Dive From Clausen's Pier, patterning's the thing, the pattern we put to life, the decisions we do and don't make, right, wrong, or somewhere in between and for all the right or wrong reasons. Or maybe right and wrong are beside the point, as Carrie's mother, a therapist, explains (convincingly?) in answer to Carrie's proper guilt for abandoning Mike:
"[Y]ou do what you do. Not without consequences for other people, of course, sometimes very grave ones. But it's not very helpful to regard your choices as a series of right or wrong moves. They don't define you as much as you define them."
So let Carrie's final move in this fine novel not be a defining one (it sure has the look of one), and you can argue all you want whether she makes it for all the right or wrong reasons. But this Kilroy character ... you don't see him now or ever with a friend in the world, just as he'd have it and just as for Carrie Bell that'd never do.