To Be Sung Underwater

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To be Sung Underwater, Tom McNeal, book reviewHave you ever received an unexpected gift that turned up out of the blue, looked like it wasn’t something you’d really be interested in and yet turned out to be exactly what you needed? Such was the case for me recently when the pile of mail waiting for me one weekend contained an unrequested parcel from the publishers Little Brown. Inside was a book which I’d have walked straight past if I’d seen it on the shelf and which might well have gone straight onto my shelf and been ignored if it were not for the letter tucked inside. The sender wrote that this was the best book she’d read this year and the first to make her cry in her time with the company. I checked the cover of ‘To Be Sung Underwater‘ and thought “Well this doesn’t look like my kind of thing at all” but on the strength of the recommendation, I started it as soon as I’d finished the book I was reading.

To Be Sung Underwater is the story of Judith and Willy and is a classic story of girl meets boy, girl leaves boy, girl goes looking for boy again – but with a heck of a twist in the tail. It will most likely leave you after over 400 pages with just one thought in your mind – and that will be the question ‘Why did he do it?’ – and no, don’t even ask, I’m not about to reveal who I’m referring to or what he did. But you’ll be asking yourself a lot of questions about the ending.

The other question this book will have ever reader asking themselves is probably ‘What if?’ – what if someone you loved when you were young really would have been the perfect partner and how would your life be now if you’d taken a different path? My guess is that we all have those thoughts, no matter how happy we are now – unless of course you married your first love and then the question would be ‘What if there had been someone else just round the corner – how would that have been?’

When Judith Whitman met Willy Banks she was still at school, staying with her divorced father in Nebraska and serving out her time at high school waiting to go to college and for life to begin. Handsome Willy with the twinkling eyes and strange way of describing things was working as a carpenter and handyman when Judith and her father went to buy a household appliance from a place where he was doing a job. He labelled her as ‘dangerous’ and she thought little more of it until fate brought them together again and they fell in love. She agreed to marry him and then everything changed – instead of going to the local college she was off to Stanford University in far off California, a place where Willy would never fit in and she soon moved on. As Willy tells us much later in the book “For you I was a chapter….and for me you were the book”.

The went their separate ways. Judith married fellow student Malcolm and had a daughter. She developed a career and a great reputation as a film editor, spending hour after hour meticulously editing and perfecting film sequences. She thought her life was good until doubts about Malcolm’s fidelity made her start to think about her first love, Willy, and to wonder what happened to him. Judith goes through a crazy phase, renting a unit in a storage warehouse, recreating the layout of her childhood building, registering the place in a false name and then opening a bank account in that identity. Judith hires a detective to track down Willy and her school friend Deena, wondering all the time about the one that got away. When the private detective locates Willy, it’s up to Judith to decide what happens next.

To Be Sung Underwater is presented in three parts. The first part cuts back and forth between present and past, between Judith the wife, mother and film editor and Judith the schoolgirl coming to terms with her parents divorce and with living in a new place. The second part focuses on the past and the relationship of Judith and Willy from their first date through to their parting when she leaves for Stanford. And the final part is back with present day Judith and her chance to change her life and go looking for Willy again.

“This book needs word of mouth recommendation and I think that’s what it will get.”

I particularly enjoyed present-day Judith in the first part of the book. As she comes to realise that her husband is up to no good and starts to develop a second life as her alter-ego Edie Winks. To Be Sung Underwater hints at many possibilities that Judith/Edie will run away, start over, become an entirely new person. Instead, we find her spending sleepy afternoons hanging out in her reconstructed bedroom out at the storage centre. There’s an underlying sense that when faced with a choice between the wild or the conventional, Judith can’t quite step off the path of respectable and dull and go for wild and wanton. I so wanted her to do something extreme – pull off a ‘Reggie Perrin’ style disappearance or expose her husband’s cheating ways. During this part of the book I mostly found Young Judith to be rather dull and dreary and I couldn’t wait for her and Young Willy to just get on with their story.

The love story of part two is beautiful and will remind many readers of perfect teen summers when everything seemed possible. Willy is a charming rogue but also a man completely in harmony with the countryside – with just one exception. He can’t and won’t learn to swim – a failing that won’t really resonate with the reader until much later in the book. Their summer of love is captivating and all the more poignant because we, the readers, know it has to end.

In part three we’re back to the present and Judith and Willy’s chance to put everything right. I would love to say more but it just wouldn’t be right to give things away. There will be an ending – it most likely won’t be the one you expect, and many will find it both shocking and emotional. I didn’t cry – perhaps because I was a bit too baffled by why it ended the way it did – but when I closed the book and put it aside, Judith and Willy were very much still with me.

I was moved deeply by this book but never really felt I entirely got under the skin of the characters. In some ways Judith is not a very likeable woman, rather cold and unemotional, responding to stimuli in unlikely ways. Her role as an editor is all about making perfection, eliminating errors and mistakes and I couldn’t help but see that as her approach to life. Perhaps it’s because the structure means that the reader always knows she’s going to leave Willy, that we can’t entirely like or respect her the way we want to. Willy is the perfect young lover but we wonder just how well that perfection will have weathered. If Judith meets him will he have forgiven her, will he still love her or will life have knocked his essential character out of him?

If I have one complaint – and it’s only a small one – it’s that the book is rather too long. Tom McNeal, the author, is clearly a man given to indulging in the detail and minutiae of observing his characters and I couldn’t help but think 10 to 20% of the book could have been sliced out without losing the plot. In the large format paperback this runs to 436 big pages and at times I did want t bit less details and a bit more action. I know many people who don’t like long books and for what appears from the cover to be ‘just another love story’ I doubt I’d have started this without the promise that it would be worthwhile. Despite that I’m happy to have received this book and more than happy to pass on the recommendation which came with it. This book deserves to be read – and neither the cover, the name or the author’s reputation (which is short hand for saying I don’t know who he is) are going to do that. This book needs word of mouth recommendation and I think that’s what it will get. Buy it – or better still buy two copies, so you’ve got one ready to hand on to a friend.

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal
Published by Little, Brown, June 2011
With thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.

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To Be Sung Underwater
by Tom McNeal

One Comment on "To Be Sung Underwater"

  1. RFW
    09/07/2011 at 22:31 Permalink

    Do you know about the author’s Wallace Stegner connection?

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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