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Friday, September 23, 2011

To Be Sung Under Water by Tom McNeal

to be sung underwater is an ARC from Blue Dot Literary, LLC.  I've struggled for a long while trying to decide what to say about it.  For some reason, it has been difficult to put into words my perception of the book.

Tom McNeal writes beautifully of Judith Whitman, a woman who realizes that she is disconnected from her life--from her husband,  her daughter, her mother, her friends, her work.  She has everything she thought she wanted, but now, Judith seems to be having a mid-life crisis.

Her way of dealing with this realization is to withdraw even further, to return to memories of her adolescence, her parents divorce, and her father's move to Nebraska.  As she allows these retreats into memory more space in her life, she begins to focus on Willy Blunt, her first love, and eventually decides to get in touch with him.

This is a compelling story of a woman who wants, at least temporarily, to return to an earlier time in her life, to have the feeling of possibilities.

I thought of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem Maud Muller, and these lines:

God pity them both! and pity us all, 
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall. 
For of all sad words of tongue or pen, 105
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

When Judith contacts Willy Blunt,  he asks her to come see him.  She returns to Nebraska for a brief interlude with Willy, not a sexual assignation, but a kind of reunion and possibly a rapprochement.  In the end, however, Judith is not sure of Willy's purpose and there is no sense of resolution for Judith.

I loved Tom McNeal's voice and the lovely language of the novel, and as I mentioned, I was quickly engrossed in the story.  However, it does have distinct echos of a longer, more complex, and definitely better-written Bridges of Madison County.  Maybe that is one reason why it has taken me so long to get to this review; I loved reading it, but the after-thoughts aren't quite as positive as the process of reading.

The thing that saves it, perhaps, is the ambivalence at the end.  Willy's actions, the plan he set in motion, leaves Judith in an emotional limbo.  She can never know his intentions for having Malcolm there.

Other review/ opinions:  S. Krishna's Books, Book Chase, Pamela Leavy,

Fiction.  Contemporary Fiction.  2011.  436 pages.

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