Friday, August 12, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater, by Tom McNeal

Your first love can have a strong hold on your imagination. And when things go badly in "real life," that first love can start to exert a pull that becomes irresistible. That is the situation in which Judith Whitman finds herself. As a teenager in Nebraska, living with her father after her parents have separated, she fell in love with local boy Willy Blunt in the summer after her senior year in high school. Willy was funny and passionate and introduced Judith to the pleasures of the Midwestern landscape and making love. She even agreed to marry him...but then she went off to Stanford and began to enjoy a different life. Soon enough, she's marrying preppy Malcolm.

Now it's 25 years later. Judith has had a successful job as a film editor, though things are not going particularly well with her current job. She suspects her banker husband is having an affair with his assistant. And she admits that she's never felt as close to her only daughter, Camille, as she thinks she should; now that Camille is a teenager, their relationship is even more troubled. Rather than engaging with these problems, Judith instead starts to think obsessively about Willy. She moves her old bedroom set where they first made love to a storage unit, where she spends more and more time sleeping and rereading the books she enjoyed as a teen (somewhat reminiscent of the crazy mother's retreat to a storage unit in Bee Season).

Finally, Judith reaches out to Willy. Since the Prologue makes it clear that they do meet again, it's not revealing anything to say that she returns to Nebraska to see him. What happen there should be discovered as you read.

As I was reading, I kept thinking "I can't believe this was written by a man," both because Judith is so well drawn in both her teen years and as she approaches middle age (sympathetic without being entirely likable) and because the story is so essentially romantic. Willy and Judith's father are also fully realized characters, though Judith's husband Malcolm is a bit of a cardboard cutout, more foil for Willy than real person.

Can you redeem your life by returning to a simpler--perhaps purer--version of yourself? Tom McNeal invites you to reflect on that question in this well-written and -plotted novel.

Favorite passage:
On these occasions Judith would always wonder whether Patrick Guest had found a place in the world that honored his ability to do things carefully and well, and whether, too, he'd found a marriage that hadn't depleted that secret cache of hopefulness he'd been accruing all the way from adolescence and probably before, Judith guessed, if he was anything like the rest of us.

. . . now, stopped in the center of Main Street, it was deeply quiet, and for that long moment Judith had the sensation of standing within an unshaken snow globe. For the rest of her life, whenever in some thrift shop or somebody's home she would come upon a broken snow globe, one where the snowflakes no longer swirled, she would be reminded of these moments standing in the stillness, staring at the thrift shop, and holding her father's hand.

1 comment:

  1. I love that passage about Patrick Guest, too. Thank you for your beautiful review.

    Laura McNeal