Judith Toomey’s life “swerved” (her word) when she was forty-four. At the time she is a Los Angeles film editor, married to a successful banker, Malcolm, and mother to a teenage daughter, Camille. Life is okay. Sometimes better than okay.
…there were whole hours and even days when Judith was visited by a dull ace that in spite of its unspecific origin seemed symptomatic of yearning, but there were also whole hours and days of productivity, good cheer, and reasonable warm fellow-feeling that she presumed she should, to be fair about it, call happiness, or something within inches of it.
But then one day, the “bird’s-eye maple bedroom set, handed down to Judith’s father by his grandparents, and by Judith’s father to Judith, and by Judith to Camille” ends up in a heap by the pool, ready to be collected and disposed of, and something in Judith unfolds, “a slow blossoming of resentment.”
To Be Sung Underwater is the story of a woman who suddenly finds herself in a life she doesn’t understand anymore. It’s not that she doesn’t love Malcolm or Camille, it’s just that a choice she’d made twenty-seven years earlier is something she can no longer ignore. Instead of allowing the furniture to be taken to the dump, Judith rents a storage facility and recreates her teenage bedroom. The space becomes an oasis for Judith – a place where she can dream and sleep and remember.
And what Judith remembers is her time living with her father in Nebraska. Judith’s parents are separated because, as her father says “Our marriage, like all marriages, was happy until it wasn’t.” Judith’s mother is a free-spirited woman and her lifestyle irks Judith, so she eventually joins her father, an English professor at a small college. They live a quiet existence, sharing music and literature and stories from her father’s past.
Then, when Judith is sixteen, she meets Willy Blunt. He calls her “dangerous” and “his eyes, reaching in, exerted on Judith what felt like a subtle but actual pull, which alarmed her.” A year later, when they meet again, there is no denying their connection.
To Be Sung Underwater resonated with me in ways I am not sure I will be able to articulate. Judith makes her living piecing frames of film together to make a coherent whole, but the pieces of her own life no longer make sense to her. She wants to go back, but as Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” She wants to see Willy, and we know from the prologue that she does.
It has been a long time since he has seen her, a very long time, but he would have known her in a second. A fraction of a second. For a moment he feels he might soon waken from a dream, but for once, at last and after all, it is not a dream.
Reading that again, after having spent a few hours with Judith and Willy, is deeply moving. I loved everything about Willy. I loved his wry sense of humour and his deep and abiding love for Judith. I loved Judith, too. She’s smart and thoughtful; she cares about the past. I loved how McNeal’s book tapped into the everyday moments that make up a life: eating and reading and sleeping and falling in love.
To Be Sung Underwater magnificently captures that very human impulse to revisit what we have lost and to try, where possible, to make ourselves whole again. This is a beautiful novel and I highly recommend it.