Rarely do we find a "literary love story," the genre itself seems to have faded into classics. For those of us who have lost hope of their revitalization, look no further than Tom McNeal's "To Be Sung Underwater." His second novel delivers with intellectually capable characters that do not merely fall in love, but question love itself in all its manifestations.
Judith and Willy had one summer together. Yet their languid days spent swimming in secret lakes and the cool nights picnicking under the stars still hang suspended in the backdrop of Judy's life years later. As for Willy, those few days with Judith have proved to be the piéce de résistance of his life. Circumstance and destiny, although often at odds, work together to make a mess of their plans, condemning them to separate fates.
Twenty-seven years later it would appear to an outsider that Judith has moved on quite well. At 44 she is a successful movie editor married to fellow Stanford alum with whom she shares one "smart, socially capable" daughter. When a certain event involving a beloved birds'-eye maple bedroom set rocks her to the core, the spell holding her in place begins to slowly recede, revealing the cracks in her carefully built life. The birds'-eye maple creates a slow building crisis lined with acute nostalgia, prompting a series of unfortunate accidents that contribute to Judith's breakdown.
Judith recalls her first summer spent in Rufus Sage, Neb., refinishing the set with her father at the tender age of 15. Three summers were spent in the small town, each one holding special memories that, when finally raised to the surface, will alter the course of her adult life. She looks to her past for a measure of stability and "the kind of love that picks you up in Akron, Ohio, and sets you down in Rio de Janeiro;" the kind she shared with Willy Blunt.
Willy is a character built on old-time values ... honesty, integrity, pride and above all the power of love. Being a man who falls hard, he never quite recovers from heartache. After their summer together, when he next sees Judith he claims he was just a chapter in her story, but to him she was the whole book. He viewed their love as "sound to the deaf and sight to the blind."
Intermingled among the lines of Judith and Willy's story are McNeal's inspirations in classic literature. Judith's father is a college professor. Separated from her estranged mother, he and Judith find common ground in their love of books.
Novels such as "Pride and Prejudice" are on their reading list and the protagonist in the novel, strong-willed, independent Elizabeth Bennet, shadows Judith's first summer in Rufus Sage. With Judith's stubborn, adolescent disposition blooming, she sees herself in the equally young and independent Elizabeth.
Other characters including Catherine, her disapproving father and her would-be lover Mr. Townsend from Henry James' "Washington Square" are represented in the dynamic shared with Judith, her father and Willy Blunt during the last, pivotal summer in Rufus Sage.
Can you go home again? Judith wonders as she attempts to make contact with Willy nearly 30 years after she left him. That age-old question continues to arise within the classics and in Judith's own story.
Summers spent in Rufus Sage represent what she believes, and this reader tends to agree, is her "best self." Pure and caring, Judith grew close to her father and found love in the confines of the small town. Since leaving behind "a simpler time and self" to find success, she lost much of her sweetness and all of her innocence.
Bittersweet could be a one-word description for "To Be Sung Underwater," a heart-wrenching love story embellished with a voice that teaches as well as tells. This novel is a must-read and Tom McNeal is an author to watch.