Book review: “To Be Sung Underwater” by Tom McNeal

June 13, 2011

Let’s face it: We’re a country that loves second chances (despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opinion to the contrary). We want to rewrite our lives and beat against the current to recapture our pasts. That’s certainly the case in Tom McNeal’s hypnotic new novel, “To Be Sung Underwater.” His complex, often heartbreaking heroine tries to find the first love she left behind many years ago.

Forty-four-year-old Judith has the veneer of a happy life, but there are cracks. Her job on a TV drama isn’t completely satisfying. She regrets the way her daughter is growing up, and her seemingly loving husband is having a dalliance with a co-worker.

Amid all this turmoil, she experiences what she calls a “swerve” in life, and she begins thinking of her first love, Willy Blunt, a teenage carpenter she fell in love with when she was 15.

Judith begins to question her life, her choices and everything she has done since she was with Willy. She’s so richly drawn, so quirkily compelling, that we’re immediately invested in her. In one of the novel’s strangest turns, she rents a storage unit and begins to turn it into a refuge, a kind of home away from home that might feed her yearning. She even takes on a secret identity, changing her name to the puckish Edie Winks. One day, pining for her past, she tracks Willy down and makes a pilgrimage back to what she considers the life she should have led.

“To Be Sung Underwater” is Judith’s mishearing of a song title, which she imagines refers to dolphins and whales listening to an ocean melody. But the spellbinding otherworldliness of the title fits this novel’s lyrical language, too. McNeal moves ef­fortlessly through time to tell the twin tales of Judith’s past and present, making you feel the radiant importance of 15-year old Judith’s summer with Willy, when her parents’ marriage split.

Their courtship is sweet and authentic, and we get to experience it from first blush to last kiss. It’s hard not to fall in love with Willy yourself, because he’s a guy who expects the best from people and has a code of honor so strong that it seems shatterproof. McNeal takes his time drawing Willy out with lovely scenes of picnics and surprises. The only person not completely happy is Judith’s father, who fears his daughter will be boxed in too soon, the way he was. But as Judith settles into this blissful life, something happens that changes the trajectory of their lives — and their love.

Fast forward 22 years. The failed dreams of her father, the ruined marriage of her parents, her own restless yearning for a time when everything seemed perfect — they all take a toll. Judith’s search for Willy is really a search for the kind of love that “picks you up in Akron, Ohio, and sets you down in Rio de Janeiro.”

And then, just as you’ve given your heart to this story, McNeal breaks it with an ending that makes you feel cheated: a tacked-on shock that’s a shame, because everything that comes before is so ravishing.

Still, McNeal captures the flush of first love and the endurance of real devotion, even as he probes deeper questions: Who are we with the ones we love, and who are we without them? “For you, I was a chapter,” Willy tells Judith. “For me, you were the book.”

Heartbreaking, messy and incredibly sad, “To Be Sung Underwater” is so vividly written that it takes you to a place where all your perceptions seem dizzyingly altered.

Which is, of course, exactly like love itself.

Leavitt’s most recent novel is “Pictures of You.”

TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER

By Tom McNeal

Little, Brown. 436 pp. $24.99

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