Once in awhile you can choose a book for its title, and then find out that the book is even better than the title. Such is the case with Tom McNeal’s fascinating novel, To Be Sung Underwater. The book was recommended to me by a reader friend along with a half dozen others, and it was the title that moved me to find and read this book first. I almost put the book aside after reading just a few pages when I realized that the lead character was a woman and the author a man. In my experience, male authors rarely do well with first-person narrative using the voice of a woman. This is one of those rare exceptions.
We are introduced to Judith, the lead character, when she is forty-four. She has, she supposes, a good marriage, a precocious and successful (if rather bratty) teenage daughter, and the job of her dreams as a film editor. And yet she feels oddly vacant and unfulfilled. She explains to her friend and co-worker, Lucy, how out of the blue a kind of swerve has occurred in her life. Not, I suppose, unlike the famous Epicurean swerve that Epicurus used to explain both how humans could have free will in an otherwise determined universe and also how the contra-causal swerve of a single atom had begun the formation of compounds and of the universe as we know it. “My life had utterly settled into itself and then this little…swerve occurred, or maybe I meant it to occur, maybe I’d actually plotted it out in one of those corners of your brain or heart you access only in dreams.”
Judith is renting a storage locker to store some old furniture which her husband, Malcom, thinks should be thrown out but that has great sentimental value for her. When asked to supply a name for the rental agreement, she suddenly and inexplicably decides to give a name that she has not thought of for years. The sudden out-of-the-blue giving of the name propels her back to a time when she was living with her father in Nebraska and met her first love, a boy name Willy, whom she has not seen for twenty-seven years. The reader is then taken on a journey with Judith that moves back and forth between that distant seventeen-year-old Judith and the present one.
Although billed as a love story, I see this novel more as an exploration of marriage and of the many ways marriages can go wrong, along with a gentle reminder of how it might also go right. Judith’s mother, Kathleen, has little good to say about her own marriage or about marriage in general.
All marriages come with a pinhole leak, her mother once said. Marriages swallow love and excrete grief. Marriage is a house a woman can’t leave and a man merely visits. (Or, as a variant: Marriage is a house with a woman locked inside.)
One morning, sitting at the kitchen table—this was after Judith’s father had left them in Vermont to take a teaching position in Nebraska—her mother said to Judith, “Our marriage, like all marriages, was happy until it wasn’t.”
In many ways Judith has carefully arranged her life to counter her mother’s grim predictions, and she has done so successfully. She had a successful career, “a smart socially capable daughter, and a husband who loved her.” But she also has two secrets: one the lingering love for the boy Willy whom she left behind when she went off to college.
The other of Judith’s important secrets was her fear that she hadn’t properly inhabited her role as a mother. She knew she loved her daughter, but it was a love with a strange insulating distance built into it.
Once Judith’s parents begin to live separately, she finds herself attracted and repelled by each. While sympathetic to her mother and to her mother’s belief that her husband has simply abandoned them both, she is bothered by her mother’s attempts to befriend Judith’s young friends, “It’s like she wants to be my age.” And while her father is comfortable with the separation, admitting that he prefers to live apart, he refuses to take Judith’s side in her criticisms of Kathleen. “People separated from their spouse…they’re almost like stroke victims. They have to learn everything over again…I can tell you from personal experience that the way we get around at the beginning isn’t always pretty.”
Judith first visits her father in Nebraska simply on summer vacation, but then frustrations with school and with her mother lead her to request moving in with him for high school. It’s during this later, longer stay that she meets and falls in love with an older boy, a carpenter who is already out of school and living on his own in Rufus Sage, Nebraska. The story of their young love is beautiful and convincing on so many levels. He introduces her not only to sex and intimacy, but in important ways brings her to a new and different view of nature. Like her professor father, Judith is a reader, an intellectual, and assumes as a matter of course that she will go on to college and have a career. Willy is not a reader, and while he respects and admires Judith’s talents, he is happy and centered in his life as a carpenter. Small town life suits him well, and especially for his relatively young age, he is self-contained and comfortable with himself.
I’m not about to reveal the twists and turns in their young love except to say that Willy is a lovely and loving young man. He seems to want Judith for just who she is; his love for her is genuine and whole. While their aspirations and dreams of the future do not neatly dovetail, this is a young man who (unlike most) is willing to follow Judith where her life takes her, and to adjust his own life to hers.
As the so-called swerve has ripple effects on Judith’s life propelling her into first imagining and then to some extent living out an alternative life with Willy, this reader was sometimes taxed in his not quite willing suspension of disbelief. And yet, McNeal manages to create an almost believable story, and one that describes a love so much better and so much more wholesome than the possessive and narcissistic ones typical of Hollywood and pop novels. Willy is certainly the most honorable of the characters, and somehow some of his authenticity seems to rub off on others.
I will leave you with a quote which I think sums up my appreciation of this book. The line is uttered by Kathleen, Judith’s mother, as she finds herself falling in love with Judith’s dad.
Sometimes I think of a cover of a book as a door to another world…but other times I think of it as an escape hatch from this one.’ And then she blinked and said, ‘I guess it’s the same thing.
I think you will be glad you opened this particular door.