Tuesday, November 22, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom Mc Neal

Judith Whitman, a film editor living in Los Angeles comes home from work one day to find that her husband has bought their daughter a new set of bedroom furniture. The old birds-eye maple bedroom set sits marooned in their backyard out by the pool. Thus begins To Be Sung Underwater (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) by Tom McNeal. Some twenty-five years ago, Judith helped her father refurbish the maple furniture for her basement bedroom. Their living arrangement was improvisational, taking place in Rufus Sage, Nebraska where her father, a college professor, had fled following a separation from Judith's mother. The relationship between father in daughter evolves into one of shared respect.

During Judith's last summer in Nebraska before heading out to California for college, she falls in love with a blue-eyed carpenter named Willy Blunt. This was one sweet, true man. Now she can no longer forget him. She still carries a picture of him hidden in her wallet. The maple furniture set represents that vividly recalled summer and when her husband discards it, Judith takes the protective stance of renting a storage unit. Nothing unusual there. But then she feels compelled to recreate her bedroom within the unit. She retreats there often, falling into reveries of memory and reexamination. Ultimately this leads to her hiring a detective to find Willy Blunt.

One more complication: it seems Judith's husband Malcolm may be having an affair with a bank coworker. Some of these plot devices sound hackneyed, but in McNeal's hands, they ring true. He skillfully interweaves Judith's present with the past. And the past starts to win to the point that Judith risks her job and marriage seeking resolution. Readers feel the same compelling pull of tenderness Judith experiences recalling the past she shared with Willy. Sounds sentimental, I know, but somehow this novel was anything but. I found it to be a powerfully compelling read. At times it was surprising, emotional and bittersweet. I could keep slewing forth more adjectives, but none could quite encompass the depth so well explored below the surface of ordinary lives in this novel. Thank you, Tom McNeal.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

I slipped into Emily Maxwells' world seamlessly, into her home on a quiet street in Pittsburgh, and into her mind where past and present circle and meander, intertwining effortlessly with the classical music she often listens to in solitude. Emily Alone (Viking, 2011) by Stewart O'Nan is not for everybody. I am sure many readers would find the bulk of this novel rather mundane. Other readers will savor every small epiphany in Emily's often orderly days. I know I did.

Emily is a widow of a certain age. She rarely sees her adult children or grandchildren, who live in faraway cities. Her most constant companion is her sister-in-law Arlene, who also lives alone nearby. Together, with one or the other of them cautiously driving, they adventure out to breakfast buffets, funerals, art and garden shows. Intimations of mortality abound, not only when Arlene enters the hospital after a fainting episode, but also when Emily's aging dog Rufus rapidly starts gaining weight. Rufus also ably serves as Emily's familiar; some of my favorite passages involved her comments and near-conversations with the dog.

O'Nan does a wonderful job of portraying Emily's mindset via a third person point of view. I had been reading a few too many novels with multiple points of view, and it was such a welcome change to thoroughly settle down with just one character. To some extent, I identified with her thought processes. She second guesses herself, analyzes things, judges others and herself, and beats herself up for much of it, all very believably. Driving to her old hometown of Kersey, she ruminates on how badly she had needed to distance herself from the place and who she had been there, "where everyone knew her as a teacher's pet and a crybaby." She used to throw tantrums and could not get along with her mother. But now she demonstrates greater wisdom, coming "to think of everyone close to her with a helpless tenderness, accepting that life was hard and people did their best."

Yes, this book blew me away with its quiet accretion of wisdom and wonder. I had only ever read one other book by O'Nan, Last Night at the Lobster (Viking, 2007), which did not really rock my world. Now I have an earlier book about Emily Maxwell and her family to look forward to, Wish You Were Here (Grove Press, 2002). Although it might have been nice to have read it first, I don't think it much matters. Spending more time with Emily Maxwell, alone or otherwise, sounds just heavenly.