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Secondary plot stalls Packer's 'Songs'

SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, by Ann Packer, Alfred A. Knopf, 322 pages, $24.9.

Ann Packer's latest novel, "Songs Without Words," does not twist the heart as did her first novel, "The Dive from Clausen's Pier," which spent summer 2002 on the New York Times' best-seller list.

The middle of "Songs Without Words" is fine. It's quite moving, actually. In the middle of the book the reader sees how a teenage girl's suicide attempt renders her parents distraught and angry at the world, and at each other. We root for the teen as she fumbles her way back from depression.

The girl is sent to an in-patient clinic where she meets other kids who are lashing out. Packer does a nice job of describing those relationships, as well as the teen's reluctance to return to her high school.

The problem with "Songs" is the secondary plot. Packer tries to interweave the suicide story with a plot about a friendship between two women. Unfortunately, the friendship she describes is bland.

It seems Sarabeth and Liz were the closest of friends before Liz's daughter attempted suicide. When Liz's husband calls with the news, Sarabeth is horrified and worried. But she puts off calling Liz for a day or two.

Liz is understandably offended that Sarabeth does not call sooner — but Liz is also absorbed with her own family's problems. They leave phone messages for each other, but in the main, Liz and Sarabeth find there's a growing distance between them.

Packer writes, "Sarabeth was perplexed by a great many things, but mostly by herself, by the weird tranquility she was beginning to feel — about Liz, about everything. Maybe it was just the way things were when you got older. You let go more easily."

The author also spends a lot of time describing the everyday lives of two friends who aren't seeing much of each other. We are privy to the errands they run. We also get some scenes of what each woman is eating for dinner. Liz, who has teens, eats a lot of pizza. Sarabeth, who is single, skips meals sometimes.

As readers, we just don't care. (Call it our weird tranquility.) Eventually, Packer's lengthy descriptions of life in suburbia leave us feeling kind of depressed ourselves.