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.

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