Books are amazing things. They transport us to different worlds. We become time travelers, change our identity, fall in love and learn lessons. Tom McNeal, whose debut novel, “Goodnight, Nebraska” received the James A. Michener Memorial Prize when it was published in 1999, has just released his second novel, To Be Sung Underwater.
This book captured all the good that makes me love reading. It is detailed, though not to the extent of Dickens, but in a manner where if you skip a paragraph, there is something missed. The character development is impeccable! McNeal captures human form in behavior, how they became to be and their character comes through in each stage of emotion: fear, commitment, money, career, love. It’s beautiful.
While the book is etched in meaning there’s no dogma here. It’s the lessons of life through our own eyes enhanced by culture and landscape that unfolds to tell a story; a beautiful story.
The character of Judith is someone I can relate to, perhaps because she is close to my age, 44. Maybe it’s because 27 years ago she took a wrong turn in life and her future has been shaped by that. Then there’s the moments in her life, I don’t wish to share, her husband, a banker might be having an affair with his assistant, her career is suffering (she’s a film editor) as she struggles in meeting the expectations of her producer. She’s getting migraines. It all leads to Judith thinking about her teenage years, spent with her father in Nebraska and Willy Blunt, the crush from those years.
Willy Blunt was a carpenter. She had promised to marry him. Blunt, however, was not one to easily transplant from Nebraska to Stanford, where Judith was headed. She left and didn’t look back. Until now. Now she may have Willy’s phone number in her hands. Would he remember her? What would they say to one another after 20 years?
To Be Sung Underwater is based, though loosely, on a longtime friend of McNeal’s, who never truly let go of the love he lost. It’s an epic love story. It’s a mid-life awakening between a woman trying to remember and the man who could not even begin to forget.
McNeal does an astounding job of alternating the present with the past. He captures the world of choices and the regrets of what might have been. It’s realistic and far from a fairy-tale. I found myself crying, laughing and even pondering my life had I made a different choice.
There are very few male authors I believe truly capture a relationship from a woman’s perspective and do it well. Gabriel García Márquez did it beautifully in Love in the Time of Cholera and now McNeal shines bright in To Be Sung Underwater.
This book is truly a must read. Which may be why it appears in Oprah’s June 2011 O Magazine, complete with Oprah’s To Be Sung Underwater Reading Guide.