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Originally published Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Book review

'To Be Sung Underwater': when first true love makes an encore appearance

In Tom McNeal's novel "To Be Sung Underwater," a long-buried romance comes to life again in a small Nebraska town.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'To Be Sung Underwater'

by Tom McNeal

Little, Brown, 448 pp., $24.99

When you are about 20 pages into this book, you will begin to lament the fact that it will, inevitably, come to an end. Tom McNeal knows how girls and women, men and boys, think and act and talk — and why. He makes the reader want to stay in this book forever, as if it were real life.

Twelve years ago, McNeal wrote "Goodnight, Nebraska," about a 17-year-old who shoots one of his rotating "stepfathers," tries to commit suicide and is sent to Goodnight to sort himself out. One way and another, he becomes a figure in this small town, marries the town belle and hits a dead end.

Much of "To Be Sung Underwater" also takes place in Nebraska, this time in a town called Rufus Sage. Judith Whitman is 44 years old, a successful film editor in Los Angeles, married to upright but not uptight banker Malcolm, with whom there has never been any trouble. She is an indifferent mother to snarky, teenage Camille and the bearer of a huge secret. For 27 years, ever since she left Rufus Sage for Stanford, she can't get Willy Blunt, her first love, out of her mind. She told him that she would be back; it didn't happen.

In a self-described "swerve," her life takes a new turn, "... maybe I'd actually plotted it out in one of those corners of your brain or heart you access only in your dreams." She rents a storage unit for a much-loved bird's eye maple bedroom set that her husband and daughter do not like, and ends up outfitting it as a nostalgic getaway. The bed with its country quilt is the first place she and Willy ever made love. Her life goes off the rails as she takes up a secret, second life as "Edie Winks," a name only she and Willy know about. The ordinarily ultra-responsible editor starts missing work, making editing mistakes and hires a private detective to find her "friend." It doesn't take long.

McNeal has created in Judith a complex young woman eager for new experience who, as an adult, realizes she made a mistake in leaving Willy. They were soul mates, but Judith didn't know it when it would have made all the difference. Judith thinks, while scanning frames for editing, "how in film, unlike real life, you could always go back, and by deleting this and adding that, you could change the tone, change the outcome ... " The bittersweet reunion of Willy and Judith is replete with surprises leading to story's end. There are no pink ribbons to make a pretty package, but there is a beautifully told, true-to-the-bone story of people more real than your neighbors. This is a novel to be enjoyed and shared with every good reader you know.

Valerie Ryan owns a bookstore in Cannon Beach, Ore.

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