Monday, May 23, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal

To Be Sung Underwater: A NovelTo Be Sung Underwater: A Novel by Tom McNeal

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I don't know how to review this book. It was deeply moving and I don't have a category to neatly slide it under. The writing is absolutely beautiful and the experience of reading the book is visceral. Reader's Digest version misses the symbolism and the gathering of different threads to be mulled over later and braided together. But here it is, anyway:

Today Judith is a 44 year old woman working in television/movie editing. She is married to Malcolm, a man she met at Stanford and a mother of Camille. Malcolm is a banker. Camille is a teenager who is a success story waiting to happen. She grew up in Vermont until her mother's midlife crisis shortly after the disintegration of the marriage. Her mother became a certified hippie who didn't wear a bra, had friends over until all hours and enjoyed wine and casual sex. Judith wanted out. Judith went to live with her father in Nebraska. Judith was 14.

In Nebraska, Judith is living with her college professor father who is possibly having multiple forays with women but he is discreet. He and Judith enjoy a close relationship and they quietly know they love one another. He provides for her needs and encourages her dreams of Ivy League colleges. Judith is not close to anybody in particular except a girl named Deena. Besides her time with Deena, Judith is simply biding her time, drinking in the redneck behavior and writing her life story into a movie inside her head.

When Judith graduates from high school, she is reacquainted with a man (age 24?) named Willy Blunt who loves his beer, finish carpentry, picnics in the backwoods, and dreams of being anything but a farmer like his father. That relationship is strained. Judith and Willy have a summer of a torrid love affair with situations popping up that would change the course of both of their lives. No, there are no unplanned pregnancies or the usual YA drama. This is not a YA book.

Late in the summer, after a particularly surprising and violent turn of events, Judith is suddenly accepted to Stanford on the day Willy proposes to her. Judith accepts the proposal and promises to return after a year to marry. She then gets on a train and that is the end of Judith and Willy.

27 years later, Judith is wondering about her husband's fidelity, her career satisfaction, and what happened to Willy and Deena? She does some digging and they are reunited. During this phase of the book, my heart hurt. It absolutely ached. What had been done couldn't be undone but they spent quality time together until the end of the book which haunts me even now. I didn't hate the ending, it simply disturbs me.

So - rather than continue my own diatribes, I am simply going to write some questions that would be interesting to address if this book were chosen for a book club WHICH IT SHOULD BE - especially by a group of women over the age of 35.
  1. Judith is editing films. How is this ironic? If you could edit your own life, what would you cut out, extend, or gloss over? Pick one event from your own life and rewrite it (Okay, that's an essay question. Perhaps the rest will go this direction. I haven't thought this out, yet). 
  2. Malcolm is not clearly vilified. Do you believe he was cheating on Judith? What difference would it have made for Judith to know for certain?
  3. Why did Judith marry Malcolm? Compare and contrast Malcolm and Willy.
  4. In an alternate, hypothetical story, Judith does not go to Stanford. How would the story be different? Would Willy still be an alcoholic? Would he still be a successful contractor? What foreshadowing is evident for Willy's life 27 years later?
  5. Willy never learns to swim. Judith is comfortable in and out of the water. She adapts easily to her surroundings (see question 6). One scene has Judith swimming and begging to teach Willy how to swim. He refuses. She asks key questions - what if his life depended on it? What if her life depended on it? He said he would jump in if her life depended on it. How does this statement relate to his last decision in the book?
  6. Could Willy have adapted to a life outside of Nebraska? How would that look in 2 years? 10 years? 27 years?
  7. Is it possible for someone to get over the one true love?
  8. How could Willy's life have been different? Could he have gone to college some place? Could he have been a lawyer? Could he have had a life outside of Nebraska without Judith?
  9. Compare the parent/child relationships of the characters; Judith/her father, Judith/her mother, Willy/his father, Willy/his mother, Judith's father/grandmother, Judith/Camille, Malcolm/Camille. Does history repeat itself in any of these relationships?
  10. Why is the story about Judith's parents and the single car crash with the other couple significant?
  11. Where is your first true love? Do you still think of him/her? Would you sacrifice your life today to be with him/her? How would your life be different?
There is so much more to discuss in this book. I honestly still don't know why the title was chosen. This is simply one of those books to take your time reading and pondering.


Unknown said...

What a great review. I want to read the book but I am also going to copy and paste your questions to have later, after I read the book. (a new follower.) Donna

Loved the last entry question: I am currently stalking..... lol

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed your review. I love books that make you feel so strongly while reading. Judith sounds like a very authenttic touching character who pulls at your heart strings.
Thank you!