McNeal, Tom. To be sung underwater

Abacus/ Little, Brown

Judith Whitman is 44 and her measured life has just taken a “swerve”. This swerve involves a storage shed, a bedroom suite, lost keys, and a second identity.

Judith’s banker husband may be having an affair with his assistant. Her career demanding long hours, Judith is alienated from her teenage daughter. And Judith is spending a lot of time reminiscing.

Does anyone recapture the passion of their first love? She wonders if she ever really loved again. As a teenager, Judith moved in with her father in Nebraska. In her seventeenth summer, she met Willy Blunt. Their youthful romance was languid and pure. Then, following a frightening incident and facing a choice between ambition and love, Judith abandoned Willy for an upwardly mobile life at Stanford.

Here’s a fine literary romance, which could be written by Johnathon Franzen channeling Jane Austen. Or not. Lushly detailed characters and meticulous plot add up to more than mere romance: it’s an evocative, sprawling portrait of rural community, a meditation on choice, a gentle presentation of humanity. Although it’s partly set in California, Nebraska owns the spaces. Where it could fall into twee sentiment, it keeps its head above water. Judith, a film editor who calls her life “her movie”, wishes she could edit her key shots. Is it sexist to be amazed at the efficacy of McNeal’s feminine voice? Judith is a true reproduction, from annoying teen to an unravelling adult: weary, not-quite-maternal, and uncertain.


Reviewed July 2011