To Be Sung Underwater

On those days when the walls are closing in, and fond memories of better times offer a respite from the dreariness of life, would it be better to tread water and tolerate life, or escape – go back to that turning point that made all the difference?  Could you?  Would you?  Tom McNeal’s novel – To Be Sung Underwater – offers that option.

As a fan of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety – one of my all-time favorite books that I think everyone should read, I was pleased to find that McNeal was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University.  McNeal started writing late for a writer (in his fifties) and  worked in his own construction company for a time; he has that self-made-man flavor in his writing.  Like Stegner,  McNeal connects his own real world credits to a story involving people you might know or even relate to, and captures the essence of living in phrases you will want to write down to remember and quote.

“…the first thing you should do when you’re uneasy about something important – the pattern of your life, the direction you’re going, a problem you’re trying to fight your way out of – the first thing you should do is stop.  Really stop.  Become the rock in the stream.”

The story starts slowly, and  revolves around Judith’s life.  When she suspects her husband of having an affair, the action goes back and forth from her present day stale marriage to a banker and her unfulfilling career as a film editor – to three summers spent with her college professor father in Nebraska, after her parents’ separation.  When she rents a storage unit and recreates her Nebraska bedroom in it, complete with quilt and books, Judith finds some relief there from her increasingly unmanageable present-day life.  As she escapes to her past, she reminisces about Willy Blunt, the Nebraska man of her youth she loved, but did not marry – the man whose picture she still carries in her wallet behind that of her teenage daughter  – the road not taken – and wonders what life would have been like if…

The characters seem to be looking for – and sometimes find themselves: Judith’s mother reverts to free spirit and enjoys life more after the divorce, her father returns to the simple life of his youth and prefers affairs with women who have no expectations of him, and Judith – trying to recover her spirit of lost youth and zest for life.

Finally, Judith hires a private detective to find Willy, and she does find him…

…there’s no joy like a truant’s joy…

To tell what happens next would spoil the story for you… but there is no happy ending here.   I vacillated between heartbreak and unrelenting wonder at McNeal’s descriptions of love, marriage, and life.  This is a book worth discussing, after a long slow read – in a book group, or with some good friends.

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2 thoughts on “To Be Sung Underwater

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for the suggestion. It looks like something I would like. Love your blog!

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