Book Review of To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal.
Every once in a while, a book comes along that is not so much read, but absorbed; a book that sinks into your bones so as to allow you to truly inhabit both the head and heart of its characters. To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal is such a book.
Native Nebraskan Judith Whitman believes in the sort of love that “picks you up in Akron, Ohio and sets you down in Rio de Janeiro.” But life took her to Los Angeles. Twenty-five years earlier, Judith was 17, living in the breathtaking open spaces of Nebraska, reveling in the love she shared with Willy Blunt, the ever-decent, soft-hearted carpenter whose pale blue eyes and easy smile awakened in Judith the reckless girl he alone imagined her to be. Back then, marrying Willy seemed natural and inevitable, until acceptance to a prestigious university carried Judith away from the plains and into a bigger, richer world.
Today, Judith Whitman is midlife, mid-marriage, and mid-child-rearing; her husband Malcolm may or may not be having an affair, and Judith fears that she “hasn’t properly inhabited her role as a mother.” She begins acting in ways that are curious, even to herself; ways that include taking on a fake identity; and renting a storage unit to preserve a replica of her childhood bedroom. Through it all, memories of Willy occupy her thoughts, just as his boyhood photo ever occupies her wallet. She sits near a phone, number in hand, and decides to finally reach out to the man who long ago believed it when she said she loved him. So opens To Be Sung Underwater, a new literary fiction novel by Tom McNeal—critically acclaimed author whose first novel, Goodnight, Nebraska, won the 1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize.
To Be Sung Underwater is a love story, and so much more. It is a story of love gained and lost, of taking stock of one’s life in middle age and trying to regain what was discarded long ago. Anyone who holds the embers of a love which still burns silently somewhere in her heart. will empathize with Judith’s need to recapture the part of herself that only Willy was able to bring out, and will feel the pain of her struggle.
McNeal says that Willy would not so much look at Judith, but “drink her in.” One could say the same thing about his prose; that his beautifully crafted sentences and evocative images are drunk more than read; that they seep into the reader, like rain into dry earth.
Both glorious and heartbreaking, joyful and tragic, To Be Sung Underwater is a treasure.
Like the love Judith and Willy shared so many years ago, their story lingers long after you turn the last page.
Tom McNeal was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, but spent part of every summer at the Nebraska farm where his mother grew up. After earning a BA in English at UC Berkeley and an MFA in Creative Writing at UC Irvine, he taught school in the town that was the inspiration for his novel, Goodnight, Nebraska. Tom has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and his short stories have been widely anthologized. Visit Tom at www.mcnealbooks.com.