Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

4 of 7
Swim Back to Me
240 pages; Knopf
Most readers know Ann Packer from her best-selling debut novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Her stunning linked-story collection,  Swim Back to Me  (Knopf), is even better, richer, more insightful. Packer can break your heart—and she can mend it, too. Easing readers in with recognizable characters facing familiar situations—an adolescent boy agonizes over an unrequited crush, a newlywed worries when her husband is late coming home—she then injects a detail that makes us see the situations in a whole new light. If Packer's characters' crises are ordinary, what's unusual is the poignant way they attempt to right themselves after crushing hits. The multilayered novella that anchors the book, "Walk for Mankind," centers on a middle-aged man looking back to when he was 13, remembering the girl who betrayed him—and his own petty, impotent act of retaliation. In the story "Dwell Time," a wife discovers her husband's shattering secret habit and wonders, "What if she could be blasé, indifferent?... Would that spoil it for him? Enough to keep him from doing it again?" The final story, "Things Said or Done," is narrated by the girl from the novella, now also middle-aged. Her recollection of their adolescent years differs wildly from the events described by the man she wounded so long ago, a fact that seems—like so much in this fine work—surprising and absolutely true.
— Karen Holt