Is it Depressing to Read About Depression? Ann Packer’s Songs Without Words

Songs Without WordsSongs Without Words by Ann Packer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So many reviewers point to how “depressing” and “boring” this book is. Although I didn’t find it so, I can see the “depressing” point. I actually found it a rather hopeful story, exploring how someone can be buried in profound despair and still find a way back up to the surface.

And boring? It’s certainly character-driven and most of the action is internal, but I was never bored while reading it. I was sometimes annoyed when a character made a choice or came to a conclusion contrary to what I wanted for them, but I wasn’t bored. The writing was so skillful and the characters so real, I can’t imagine being bored by this book.

I see the book as mainly about the reactions of three women to life. Liz is emotionally healthy and used to acting as the support and the voice of reason to those struggling around her. When faced with a crisis, she’s forced to reevaluate her life, but she does so in a sane and healthy manner. Sarabeth had an unstable childhood due to her mother’s mental illness and perceives even small events in her life as crises. She’s not necessarily the owner of the depression she feels, but she’s learned it from her mother and doesn’t know quite how to stop it. Lauren is deeply and biologically depressed. The depression originates in her despite a loving and stable home environment.

Packer’s description of Liz’s “knocked off her feet but picking herself up and dusting herself off” reaction to her daughter’s suicide attempt and Sarabeth’s “can’t get out of bed” reaction to, well, life, was an interesting juxtaposition. Sarabeth’s relationship with her mother left her with this kind of learned helplessness that I suppose is somewhat pathetic. She believes that she can’t possibly do anything to change or improve her situation, so she doesn’t try. She relies on well-adjusted Liz to pull her out of each funk, and when Liz isn’t there, it sends her into a tailspin, but it also forces her to choose whether she’s like her mother or whether she can make a different choice. That’s a hopeful element in the novel, although I am a little skeptical about just how fully recovered Sarabeth seems to be at the end. Can someone really make that big a shift in their lifelong thinking that quickly?

Being inside Lauren’s head was just riveting to me. I felt frustrated that she couldn’t just stop thinking her negative thoughts, but at the same time it was written in a way that made sense (and felt familiar): How could she possibly not think that way? How could she think those things about herself, believe them, then let them go? The answer is pretty mundane (therapy, medication), but the internal journey is what I find interesting. And I like that even when she’s feeling better, there’s the recognition that she’s not done. She’s going to be confronting these thoughts throughout her life, probably. Her task isn’t to vanquish them once and for all but to develop skills to cope with them as they come up.

What was strange to me about this book is that I wasn’t bothered that much by Packer’s mention of the names of businesses and streets in the story. Usually this kind of name-dropping drives me nuts. I admit, I think the mention of Berkeley Bowl and Andronico’s didn’t further the story, but the street names I think actually enhanced the story. Maybe it’s just because I lived in the Bay Area recently and the street names helped me place the characters in the world and see better where they were. Or maybe it’s just that excitement of, “Hey! I know where that is! And it’s in a book! I must be important!”

Perhaps it’s just because I’m a boring, depressing person who gets a kick out of reading about places she’s lived, but I liked this book, and I look forward to reading The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.

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2 Replies to “Is it Depressing to Read About Depression? Ann Packer’s Songs Without Words

  1. I am definitely going to check out this book. It sounds really interesting but I am biased as a see Sarabeth as a relatable character. My mother has bipolar disorder.

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