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Book Review: To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal

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When I was little, my father taught me to sit cross-legged on the pool bottom. We sat in my underwater kingdom, holding breath as long as we could and then burst up through the surface. The light beneath refracted in mesmeric patterns that are only found when it pours through bluely chlorinated water. Below, we would have nonsense conversations and sing little snatches of song to each other that sounded like the distant keening of whales.

Book coverSo the title of Tom McNeal’s new book drew me in and the held me underneath, until I popped up gasping for air. In To Be Sung Underwater, McNeal has written a gently yearning novel, one you will read quickly to find out the fate of these characters. The plotting is deft and the characterization of these flawed people is so believable that they will stay with you long after the last page.

Judith Toomey has a model life, the one she has arranged perfectly for herself: a rewarding job in the film industry, a wryly handsome husband, a teenage daughter who occasionally allows her a kiss goodnight. Then one day she discovers a crack in the veneer and slips sideways out of her life; the past she has so neatly boxed away starts to whisper to her.

Judith gives a name for herself that she hasn’t used in years in order to rent a storage unit, simply to reconstruct her bedroom from her teenage years — a bedroom where she loved a boy. The longer she stays in this facsimile room, the more she remembers about the past she tried to forget and the boy she left behind. Her real life, with her job and husband and daughter, slips away like shadows on a wall. Judith follows the memories back and back, like tugging on a pull on a sweater, unraveling until she is left with the truth.

To Be Sung Underwater paints warm vistas of two lazy Nebraskan summers for Judith, one endlessly vibrant with newly-discovered love and one that offers recovered love. That’s when the book really sings; it explores the secrets we keep from our loved ones, the ones kept in boxes tucked away, snippets of first loves and forgotten dreams. This book’s siren song, the temptation to return to your one true chance at happiness, is the one sung underwater. From a great distance, it calls Judith back to the plains of Nebraska and the memories of a boy she once loved.

Visit: Tom McNeal’s website

Watch the book trailer: To Be Sung Underwater Book Trailer

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About Anna Meade

  • Thank you, Anna, for writing such a lyrical review. I used to sit at the bottom of the pool just like this, but I hadn’t thought of those colors and sounds in relation to the book’s title. Perfect!

  • Laura, thank you for your kind remark. I truly enjoyed Tom’s book and it was easy to write lyrically about a book that was so lyrical.