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Book Review: To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal

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Tom McNeal’s absorbing novel To Be Sung Underwater (Little, Brown & Company) is a quiet and immersive story about “who gets handed your heart and what they do with it.” The novel examines how one woman’s navigation through life propels her forward in a certain direction, leaving rippling heartache in her wake.

Judith Whitman is “trying to run away but (she doesn’t) know how to do it.” When her distant husband Malcolm wants to cast off her childhood birds eye maple bedroom set, Judith rents a storage facility, moves the bed into it, and begins to nap in the prized artifact of her adolescence. This begins the curious story about a woman’s midlife awakening and her quest to reunite with a lost love.

Alternating between Judith’s past and present, McNeal gradually reveals that by leaving her Nebraska home to attend Stanford, and later accepting a job as a Hollywood film editor, Judith chose a distinct and inevitable path that forced her to leave former boyfriend Willy Blunt behind.

Now, 27 years later, Judith aches to discover what has become of her lost teenaged love. This time she takes the other bend in the road. Hiring a private investigator, she searches for and finds Blunt, a passionate carpenter who lives by his own set of rules.

While the story of her life begins to play in her cinematic and editorial eye, her reunion is anything but a Hollywood ending. Dripping in realistic and bittersweet moments, Blunt, who views life through a Bushnell rifle scope, has never truly recovered from losing Judith, saying: “For you, I was a chapter—a good chapter, maybe, or even your favorite chapter, but still, just a chapter—and for me, you were the book.”

McNeal’s ability to tell the story from a female point of view is shockingly accurate, as is his Richard Russo-esque ability to make small town characters simply complicated, juxtaposing the human experience with remarkable depth. McNeal demonstrates this trait through his character Willy Blunt, who says:

“We’re just small, Judy. All of us, even though we do stuff every day of the week to distract ourselves from the fact, it’s still true. We’re just little and small and maybe if we have some backbone we do a few things worth doing and then we’re gone.”

Gradually developing comprehensive characters that resonate with the contemporary themes of choice and yearning, McNeal’s work feels like an anthology of human experience as he artfully weaves the protagonist’s intricate back story with her present life.

To Be Sung Underwater is a beautiful novel that bravely examines the effect a broken relationship can have on one’s life path. Comparing the “heliotropic” California lifestyle to the “flutish wind” passing through the pine-scented woods of Nebraska, McNeal further helps us understand the profound dichotomy of Judith’s difficult choices.

As you reach the inevitable and surprising ending of Judith’s journey, you’ll find yourself gliding toward the last word, yearning to float along the pages a little longer and marvel at the profound depth of To Be Sung Underwater.

Click away for my interview with author Tom McNeal. 

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