Abacus £12.99 (436pp). £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
To Be Sung Underwater, By Tom McNeal
Friday 29 July 2011
The road not taken has long been a familiar theme in romantic fiction. In this all-American love story, a Californian building contractor turned novelist, Tom McNeal, gives an old story a fresh lick of paint and asks what happens when we re-visit turning points of youth.
Los Angeles film-editor, Judith Whitman, is 44 when her life takes what she can only describe as "a swerve". Her banker husband looks like he might be having an affair and their precocious daughter, Camille, is getting tired of hanging out with the nanny.
Judith finds herself unable to concentrate at work, and suffering from migraines. She also finds herself flooded by a sudden desire to track down her first love, Willy Blunt - a Nebraskan carpenter with an easy smile.
While in the grip of this mid-life madness, Judith decides to rent a storage lock-up not far from her office. It's here she escapes when she feels the urge to skip work, forget her marriage, and re-live memories of what she refers to as "The Summer of Willy".
But titter ye not. This elegiac saga - more Larry McMurtry than Anne Tyler - soon starts to work its star-spangled magic. The author of several previous novels for young adults, McNeal is most at home when it comes to the tender expressions of puppy love. Judith is just 16 when she first claps eyes on Willy, fixing a neighbour's roof.
Taken by the farm-hand's "wintry eyes" and faded shirts, she abandons her more bookish pursuits for an education of another kind. Their cowpoke romance blossoms in the back of pick-up trucks and under prairie moons. It was kind the love, Judith remembers years later, that could "pick you up in Akron, Ohio, and set you down in Rio de Janeiro". But then Willy gets caught up in a bout of redneck violence, Judith gets accepted at Stanford, and you can guess the rest.
McNeal's very readable novel might be built from well-worn clichés, but they are assembled by a master craftsman. Back in present day Los Angeles, what the reader really wants to know is if Judith will summon up the courage to re-connect with her past and meet up with the Willy of her dreams.
When the moment finally comes, and she packs her bags for backwoods Nebraska, hankies need to be at the ready. Over a campfire cook-out, a new craggier Willy tells his long-lost sweetheart: "For you I was a chapter- a good chapter, maybe, or even your favourite chapter... and for me, you were the book."
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