Review of “To Be Sung Underwater” by Tom McNeal

This thoughtful and poignant novel sneaks quietly into your affections until, at the end, you feel awed by the artistic merit of the author, and by his portrayal of endless love and longing coupled with boundless betrayal and grief.

I was just knocked out by this book, although it was one in which I didn’t like many of the protagonists (usually enough to sour my interest in a story). Even with the perspective afforded by going back and forth in time, Judith Toomey is unlikable both as a sneering, self-absorbed teenager and a still self-absorbed and cynical adult – until the last section that is, when the revival of her love for what is real transforms her into someone who finally learns how to give, in time to see the shocking sorrow that results from a broken heart.

Judith, at age 44, is living the life she thought she wanted, working on movies in L.A. and married to a banker, Malcolm Whitman, whom she met at Stanford. Judith and Malcolm both work late, and their only daughter Camilla is dour and rebellious. Moreover, Malcolm is probably having an affair with his assistant. Judith is so disconnected from her family though, that she doesn’t really seem to care, and retreats into memories of her youth in Nebraska when she was swept away by her first love, a wonderful character named Willy Blunt.

Willy is really the only likable character in the book, but oh, how likable he is! With his soft gaze and tender consideration, he truly seems to understand how to love. And how to live: when Judith first encounters him and his seeming unflagging good cheer, the author writes:

“What Judith thought was that the roofer was probably a prime example of somebody who hadn’t given his life enough thought to know how unhappily he ought to view it. ‘Maybe he’s a simpleton,’ she said.”

The concept of marriage takes a huge hit in this book, which is unexpected, since the enduring gift that love provides does not.

It begins with Judith’s mother, whose own marriage disintegrated and Judith’s father moved away to Nebraska. Judith’s mother says to her:

“‘You know what marriage is like?’ ‘It’s like picking the place you’re going to live for the next fifty years by using a wall map, a blindfold, and what you really, truly, deeply believe is your lucky dart.’

Sullenly Judith said, ‘I don’t believe I have a lucky dart,’ and her mother cast an unhappy smile her way and said, ‘You will, though.’”

And at one point Willy tells Judith about a broken down mare he had:

“Couldn’t ride it, except maybe to walk it around the corral. You could feed it and brush it and water it was all. Sometimes I’ve thought that’s what most marriages get to. A horse you still care a little bit about but cannot any longer ride.”

Couldn’t you just cry over that? Likewise when Willy says to Judith:

“There really isn’t anything of importance except maybe who gets handed your heart and what they do with it.”

Willy reflects:

“We’re just small, Judy. All of us, even though we do stuff every day of the week to distract ourselves from the fact, it’s still true. We’re just little and small and maybe if we have some backbone we do a few things worth doing and then we’re gone.”

Willy always had the backbone. And finally, finally, Judith knows what to do with the heart she has been given.

The stunning ending includes an unforgettable scene that manages to recapitulate and encapsulate the entire story into one transcendent moment.

Evaluation: I stayed up all night to finish this book. The beautifully meditative descriptions of nature’s immediacy and grandeur in Nebraska infuse the book with an almost spiritual quality. And the juxtaposition of a sterile and incomplete existence with one that is fulfilling will challenge your notions about a well-settled life. But it is the depiction of love that will sweep you off your feet, as the author illuminates the glimmering facets of tenderness that can last a lifetime. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2011

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27 Responses to Review of “To Be Sung Underwater” by Tom McNeal

  1. Sandy says:

    OMG that quote about the magic dart! Holy cow. Pretty sour view on life. Ordinarily I would avoid such a book, but if she comes around, then you have to be able to feel hope at the end. If I just read your favorite books Jill, I’d be busy for the next fifty years!

  2. Barbara says:

    Well, at first blush I wouldn’t even consider reading this. Then I discover you loved it and highly recommend it – that changes my whole outlook. You never get this excited about a book.

  3. Alex says:

    Straight to the wishlist. That quote about marriage, although kind of harsh, is hilarious.

  4. JoAnn says:

    Hmm, I hadn’t heard of this one… but it’s on my wishlist now. Thanks, Jill!

  5. Wow, this sounds really good. It does strike me as a novel that sneaks up on you.

  6. zibilee says:

    There is something about the poignancy of the quotes you provided in this review that make me really eager to read this one. Though it does sound a little bitter when it comes to marriage, it sounds like it really makes up for that in the romance department. I am definitely adding this one to the list right away, and am excited about getting my hands on a copy. It sounds like a brave and beautiful book.

  7. Alyce says:

    This never would have grabbed my attention on the shelf or by the description, but those quotes are so heartfelt and beautifully sad that I’m interested in the story now.

  8. Steph says:

    I know how important it is for you to like the characters in the books you read so the fact that you still liked this book so much without that element speaks volumes! This book sounds sooooo sad… I don’t know if I’m strong enough for it!

  9. softdrink says:

    But is it better than Nesbo?? 😉

    It does sound like a wonderful book, and the cover is gorgeous. But like Steph mentioned, I’m not sure I’m up for so much sadness.

  10. Nymeth says:

    Going straight onto the “books Jill loved” section of my wishlist. Which does exist! At least in my head 😛

  11. Oh, this looks wonderful. It’s the first I’ve heard of it.

  12. Jenny says:

    This looks — awfully depressing, Jill. Do you generally like books about alienated protagonists in Nebraska? Because I don’t, typically, but if you don’t typically either then maybe this one’s an exception and I should read it after all.

  13. Julie P. says:

    Oh my goodness. I think I need to read this one after your reaction.

  14. celawerd says:

    Sounds good. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Melissa says:

    You had me from the first sentence of this review. I’m sold.

  16. Belle Wong says:

    Wow. This normally isn’t my kind of book (I’m all about genre, genre and more genre, as you already know!), but you got me with this review, and the quotes you selected.

  17. JoV says:

    Ooo this one sounds romantic, unfortunately it is not available in the UK. 😦

  18. JoV says:

    I take that back! I found it in my library. It’s on order.! 🙂

  19. Stayed up all night? I have not had a read like that in a long long time.

  20. Staci says:

    This one sounds like a book that I would be totally drawn to…knowing that the last part of the book redeems Judith a bit will make it easier for me to stay with the story!

  21. I have this one on my long, long wish list. I like the sound of it. Thanks for sharing with us.

  22. stacybuckeye says:

    Well now I need to read it just so I can get to the last scene! (If I don’t just skip to the back first, which I’ve been known to do :))

  23. Laura McNeal says:

    Is it okay to comment if I’m Tom McNeal’s wife? Thank you for this thorough, thoughtful review, first of all. Thanks for quoting from the book, which I think is the best way to let people judge what it’s like. I would add that I think of Judith’s mother (the mouthpiece of those pithy comments about marriage) as a Cassandra of sorts. She predicts a future no one wants to believe, least of all Judith, and yet her predictions are fated to come true. I think a novel has to express, somehow, our deepest fears, and what could be scarier than this: “Every marriage comes with a pinhole leak”? I agree with you that what remains at the end is the depiction of love–pure love and tenderness. If you don’t like Judith (I did), that makes sense, really, because she’s not the protagonist. Willy is, and he has his own apt description of marriage, which I hope you don’t mind me setting in here:
    “Well, it’s all kind of a puzzle, isn’t it? You start out with your own little set of pieces you’re trying to fit together, then you get married, and it’s a lot more pieces, way more than double in my opinion, and next thing you have kids and all of a sudden there are too many pieces for the table, and more showing up every day.” He gave a small dry laugh. “I suppose the Buddhists and them would say you just got to appreciate the ever-changing thinginess of the puzzle.” (page 388)

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  25. Amy says:

    I’m quite late in commenting on your review. I just read Sandy’s and she references your review in hers and mentions your enthusiasm for this book so I came on over!
    Your opening sentence is amazing and seals the deal for me on this book. I’m so happy it’s sitting here on my shelf!
    Holy cow, that one quote from Judith tells me how miserable she is, yeesh! And Willy is so alive and delightful!

    I’m so glad I read your review, Jill…it’s fantastic. Thank you , I am looking forward to reding this book so much, unlikable characters and all!

  26. Tony Reser says:

    Like a number of other readers I find your review and insights re To be Sung Underwater thoroughly capture the spirit of the book. It moved me deeply and I am headed to my local Powell’s to purchase Goodnight Nebraska. Would you share your recommendations on other books you deem to be as well written and moving as To be Sung Underwater? The only book I have recently read which compares to it is The Art of Fielding.

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