A review of To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal

Reviewed by Sara Hodon

To Be Sung Underwater
by Tom McNeal
Little, Brown and Company
Hardcover: 448 pages, June 2, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0316127394

Every so often, a book comes along that makes its reader want to shut the door, turn off the phone and TV, curl up under a blanket, and savor every word. To Be Sung Underwater, the latest by novelist Tom McNeal, is such a book. Admittedly, most readers might find that the story has been told and re-told before, but the characters’ distinctive dialogue and McNeal carefully constructed writing makes this novel something special.

Judith Toomey Whitman is a woman in search of…something. She’s not sure what. All she knows is that she’s growing restless and bored with her life. She’s an established film and TV editor, married to her solid, upstanding husband Malcolm (whom she later discovers may be feeling a bit restless, as well), and the mother of her teenage daughter, Camille. Judith isn’t aware that she’s restless with her life until she rents a storage unit to house some furniture she has no room for but doesn’t want to part with. For reasons even Judith can’t explain, her storage unit becomes the home base for the new identity she creates for herself. She opens a bank account and buys a cell phone under the name she used to call herself as a teenager. But why all the secrecy?

The answer lies with Judith’s teenage romance, Willy Blunt. Judith left him behind when she left for a prestigious college on the West Coast rather than staying in Nebraska with Willy and her father. The romance with Willy, and Judith’s relationship with her father to a lesser extent, lies at the heart of the novel.

One of the most interesting things about Judith is that she isn’t pretending to be something she’s not. She’s not necessarily hiding her little getaway, or this new secret identity she’s created for herself, but she’s not flaunting it, either. She’s not pretending that life isn’t going quite as she expected, but it’s difficult for her to say why. She suspects that her husband Malcolm isn’t being completely forthcoming, either, but most of this is speculation.

Even with McNeal’s lyrical, thoughtful writing, what stands out most is what he doesn’t tell readers. Sure, Judith suspects his husband is up to something—but is he? McNeal drops hints here and there, but doesn’t say for sure. On a whim, Judith hires a private detective to track down Willy and a few other friends from her Nebraskan childhood. Judith and Willy reunite after twenty-seven years apart. It’s clear that Willy has changed, but what exactly is wrong with him? McNeal also offers virtually no information about Judith’s best high school friend, which left me wondering, “…and what about Deena?” I admire McNeal for his subtlety, but felt that there were a few too many questions left unanswered. Yet, on some level I understood that this was really the story of Judith and Willy. Written in third person, on a few occasions McNeal describes the pair as being in a world of their own, so perhaps it makes sense for McNeal to keep them front and center in the story.

To Be Sung Underwater is a perfect example of a typical love story told in a unique and beautiful way, complete with an ending I certainly didn’t see coming. I can only imagine how much work it took Tom McNeal to produce writing that seems so effortless.

About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com