To Be Sung Underwater

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Overview

Judith Whitman always believed in the kind of love that "picks you up in Akron and sets you down in Rio." Long ago, she once experienced that love. Willy Blunt was a carpenter with a dry wit and a steadfast sense of honor. Marrying him seemed like a natural thing to promise. But Willy Blunt was not a person you could pick up in Nebraska and transport to Stanford. When Judith left home, she didn't look back.

Twenty years later, Judith's marriage is hazy with secrets. In her hand ...

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Overview

Judith Whitman always believed in the kind of love that "picks you up in Akron and sets you down in Rio." Long ago, she once experienced that love. Willy Blunt was a carpenter with a dry wit and a steadfast sense of honor. Marrying him seemed like a natural thing to promise. But Willy Blunt was not a person you could pick up in Nebraska and transport to Stanford. When Judith left home, she didn't look back.

Twenty years later, Judith's marriage is hazy with secrets. In her hand is what may be the phone number for the man who believed she meant it when she said she loved him. If she called, what would he say?

TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER is the epic love story of a woman trying to remember, and the man who could not even begin to forget.

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  • To Be Sung Underwater
    To Be Sung Underwater  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Judith Whitman is 44, questioning her life, and thinking about the hometown boy she jilted almost 30 years before in McNeal's affecting second novel (after Goodnight, Nebraska). At Stanford, Judith had met the "older, urbane" Malcolm and they married, moved to Los Angeles, and built an enviable life. Now she's bored with her suave, unfaithful banker husband, guilty about her lack of maternal feelings for her teenage daughter, and overburdened and distracted at her job editing a "respected television drama." McNeal's agile prose manages to render Judith sympathetic, though she's not an easy character to like. Flashbacks evoke her youth in Vermont, and her decision, when her parents separate and her mother becomes neglectful, to move to Nebraska to live with her father. When Judith, as a high school senior, falls in love with Willy, a local intelligent and sensitive carpenter, she imagines a simple life in the town of Rufus Sage, but after she leaves for college the relationship unravels. Despite a slow start and dialogue heavy on aphorisms, McNeal succeeds with his obvious affection for the daily rhythms of life in Nebraska and his sensitive exploration of marital stresses and psychological accommodations, in addition to a moving surprise denouement. (June)
Joanne Wilkinson
In this thoughtful and compelling look at the road not taken, McNeal calls up the landscape of the Great Plains as a place where it's possible to see that it's the simple things—a secluded swimming hole, a cold beer, the laughter of the person you love—that are the most valuable.
Booklist
Cynthia Crossen
[An] exceptional novel.... A few pages into it, I was blissfully lost in the two worlds of Judith Toomey, first in her high-school years in Nebraska, and decades later, in her grown-up life as a wife, mother and film editor in Los Angeles. Mr. McNeal writes a kind of prose that's almost endangered today: natural, smooth and subtle... Yet he produces one extraordinary sentence after another as he unspools two irresistible tales. If you despair of the vigor and grace of modern fiction, read this.
The Wall Street Journal
Tara Pettit
To Be Sung Underwater beautifully sings the story of one woman's wrestling with the present realities of a life she created after shedding her hometown skin and abandoning the lover who knew her best. Author Tom McNeal (Goodnight, Nebraska) intricately develops the emotional ties between his characters, capturing the essence of the human heart while rejoicing in the restorative power of reconnection. The novel shows that we may not be able to bring our past with us into the present, but by looking back, we might see just where we are truly meant to be.
BookPage
Caroline Leavitt
hypnotic .... "To Be Sung Underwater" is Judith's mishearing of a song title, which she imagines refers to dolphins and whales listening to an ocean melody. But the spellbinding otherworldliness of the title fits this novel's lyrical language, too. McNeal moves ef­fortlessly through time to tell the twin tales of Judith's past and present, making you feel the radiant importance of 15-year old Judith's summer with Willy, when her parents' marriage split. Their courtship is sweet and authentic, and we get to experience it from first blush to last kiss. It's hard not to fall in love with Willy yourself.... McNeal captures the flush of first love and the endurance of real devotion, even as he probes deeper questions: Who are we with the ones we love, and who are we without them? "For you, I was a chapter," Willy tells Judith. "For me, you were the book." Heartbreaking, messy and incredibly sad, To Be Sung Underwater is so vividly written that it takes you to a place where all your perceptions seem dizzyingly altered. Which is, of course, exactly like love itself.
The Washington Post
Carrie Keyes
Tom McNeal's absorbing novel To Be Sung Underwater is a quiet and immersive story about "who gets handed your heart and what they do with it." The novel examines how one woman's navigation through life propels her forward in a certain direction, leaving rippling heartache in her wake.... McNeal's ability to tell the story from a female point of view is shockingly accurate, as is his Richard Russo-esque ability to make small town characters simply complicated, juxtaposing the human experience with remarkable depth.... Gradually developing comprehensive characters that resonate with the contemporary themes of choice and yearning, McNeal's work feels like an anthology of human experience as he artfully weaves the protagonist's intricate back story with her present life. To Be Sung Underwater is a beautiful novel that bravely examines the effect a broken relationship can have on one's life path.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Sarah Willis
Many of us wonder what happened to our first love, if we haven't managed to keep in touch on FaceBook. In Tom McNeal's beautifully written novel, To Be Sung Underwater, 44-year-old Judith Whitman goes a tad further than merely wondering.... It's a compelling story, uniting the literary, character-driven novel with what eventually becomes quite a page turner.... These two men, Judith's father and Willy, are wonderfully drawn, complicated characters, both calm, thoughtful, loving and intelligent, with their own unique life philosophies. And smooth-talking Willy has a wry humor that is downright sexy. Readers, along with Judith, will fall in love with him.... the story keeps you up at night. This novel will make for great book-club discussions.... [McNeal] is a brilliant writer.
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer
Susan Salter Reynolds
Tom McNeal is one of the finest examples [of Stanford's Wallace Stegner fellows] to come along in a while.... How can you recognize the Stegner training? First, the novel is so carefully written. You cannot skip sentences, paragraphs or even words without missing something. Second, the main characters, Judith and Willy, are exquisitely drawn, backward and forward.... Third, the world of the novel is full of meaning, full of metaphor, a kind of spirituality that has no need for dogma or churches or liturgy.... Fourth and finally, the wisdom: Stegner's novels (and so often those of his students in the program) by withholding judgment teach the reader something about what kind of person he or she wants to be. Consider this simple sentence: "looking back, he thought she was only as happy as a person waiting for the next phase of her life might be." Such insights require not only experience and intelligence but also patience and wisdom. To Be Sung Underwater is blessed with these qualities.... Can you go back to that purer, better self? It's one of the best questions in literature.... Love stories have a terrible gravity, a centrifugal force. McNeal has created characters so dimensional, so memorable, that we are caught up in that urgency. Our rationality is compromised; the rules of the world fade away. This is your last chance, Judith, do you hear me? - we shout at the flimsy pages. Get yourself back to Rufus Sage, Neb., and fast! There's not a moment to lose!
Los Angeles Times
Tara Pettit - BookPage
"To Be Sung Underwater beautifully sings the story of one woman's wrestling with the present realities of a life she created after shedding her hometown skin and abandoning the lover who knew her best. Author Tom McNeal (Goodnight, Nebraska) intricately develops the emotional ties between his characters, capturing the essence of the human heart while rejoicing in the restorative power of reconnection. The novel shows that we may not be able to bring our past with us into the present, but by looking back, we might see just where we are truly meant to be."
Sarah Willis - The Cleveland Plain-Dealer
"Many of us wonder what happened to our first love, if we haven't managed to keep in touch on FaceBook. In Tom McNeal's beautifully written novel, To Be Sung Underwater, 44-year-old Judith Whitman goes a tad further than merely wondering.... It's a compelling story, uniting the literary, character-driven novel with what eventually becomes quite a page turner.... These two men, Judith's father and Willy, are wonderfully drawn, complicated characters, both calm, thoughtful, loving and intelligent, with their own unique life philosophies. And smooth-talking Willy has a wry humor that is downright sexy. Readers, along with Judith, will fall in love with him.... the story keeps you up at night. This novel will make for great book-club discussions.... [McNeal] is a brilliant writer."
Carrie Keyes - Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"Tom McNeal's absorbing novel To Be Sung Underwater is a quiet and immersive story about "who gets handed your heart and what they do with it." The novel examines how one woman's navigation through life propels her forward in a certain direction, leaving rippling heartache in her wake.... McNeal's ability to tell the story from a female point of view is shockingly accurate, as is his Richard Russo-esque ability to make small town characters simply complicated, juxtaposing the human experience with remarkable depth.... Gradually developing comprehensive characters that resonate with the contemporary themes of choice and yearning, McNeal's work feels like an anthology of human experience as he artfully weaves the protagonist's intricate back story with her present life. To Be Sung Underwater is a beautiful novel that bravely examines the effect a broken relationship can have on one's life path."
Cynthia Crossen - The Wall Street Journal
"[An] exceptional novel.... A few pages into it, I was blissfully lost in the two worlds of Judith Toomey, first in her high-school years in Nebraska, and decades later, in her grown-up life as a wife, mother and film editor in Los Angeles. Mr. McNeal writes a kind of prose that's almost endangered today: natural, smooth and subtle... Yet he produces one extraordinary sentence after another as he unspools two irresistible tales. If you despair of the vigor and grace of modern fiction, read this."
Susan Salter Reynolds - Los Angeles Times
"Tom McNeal is one of the finest examples [of Stanford's Wallace Stegner fellows] to come along in a while.... How can you recognize the Stegner training? First, the novel is so carefully written. You cannot skip sentences, paragraphs or even words without missing something. Second, the main characters, Judith and Willy, are exquisitely drawn, backward and forward.... Third, the world of the novel is full of meaning, full of metaphor, a kind of spirituality that has no need for dogma or churches or liturgy.... Fourth and finally, the wisdom: Stegner's novels (and so often those of his students in the program) by withholding judgment teach the reader something about what kind of person he or she wants to be. Consider this simple sentence: "looking back, he thought she was only as happy as a person waiting for the next phase of her life might be." Such insights require not only experience and intelligence but also patience and wisdom. To Be Sung Underwater is blessed with these qualities.... Can you go back to that purer, better self? It's one of the best questions in literature.... Love stories have a terrible gravity, a centrifugal force. McNeal has created characters so dimensional, so memorable, that we are caught up in that urgency. Our rationality is compromised; the rules of the world fade away. This is your last chance, Judith, do you hear me? - we shout at the flimsy pages. Get yourself back to Rufus Sage, Neb., and fast! There's not a moment to lose!"
Caroline Leavitt - The Washington Post
"hypnotic .... "To Be Sung Underwater" is Judith's mishearing of a song title, which she imagines refers to dolphins and whales listening to an ocean melody. But the spellbinding otherworldliness of the title fits this novel's lyrical language, too. McNeal moves ef­fortlessly through time to tell the twin tales of Judith's past and present, making you feel the radiant importance of 15-year old Judith's summer with Willy, when her parents' marriage split. Their courtship is sweet and authentic, and we get to experience it from first blush to last kiss. It's hard not to fall in love with Willy yourself.... McNeal captures the flush of first love and the endurance of real devotion, even as he probes deeper questions: Who are we with the ones we love, and who are we without them? "For you, I was a chapter," Willy tells Judith. "For me, you were the book." Heartbreaking, messy and incredibly sad, To Be Sung Underwater is so vividly written that it takes you to a place where all your perceptions seem dizzyingly altered. Which is, of course, exactly like love itself."
Markus Zusak
"You don't so much read To Be Sung Underwater as you're consumed by it. The characters are unforgettable. The writing is staggering. More importantly, though, it's the courage of this book that sets it apart. It's the bravest, most beautiful book I've read in a long time."
Richard Ford
"To Be Sung Underwater is such an immensely readable novel. McNeal has the enviable talent of making splendid writing look easy at no cost to the complexity and the beauties of what fascinates him (and me) -- the terrain occupied by women and men in love with each other. This is a wonderful book."
Joanne Wilkinson - Booklist
"In this thoughtful and compelling look at the road not taken, McNeal calls up the landscape of the Great Plains as a place where it's possible to see that it's the simple things--a secluded swimming hole, a cold beer, the laughter of the person you love--that are the most valuable."
Ehud Havazelet
"What a pleasure to hear Tom McNeal's voice again, its humor and intelligence and muscle. By turns gentle and grim, lyric and comic, To Be Sung Underwater is a lovely book about what remains after so much is lost. What sweeps you along is not just the power of its writing but what distinguishes McNeal from nearly every other writer working in America these days--his unironic affection for the characters he brings so richly to life."
Ann Packer
"Smart, sexy, gorgeous, and at times devastatingly sad--these words describe the woman at the heart of this wonderful novel almost as well as they do the book itself. This ravishing love story will envelop you for a few days and then linger for a long time thereafter."
From the Publisher
"You don't so much read To Be Sung Underwater as you're consumed by it. The characters are unforgettable. The writing is staggering. More importantly, though, it's the courage of this book that sets it apart. It's the bravest, most beautiful book I've read in a long time."—Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief

"What a pleasure to hear Tom McNeal's voice again, its humor and intelligence and muscle. By turns gentle and grim, lyric and comic, To Be Sung Underwater is a lovely book about what remains after so much is lost. What sweeps you along is not just the power of its writing but what distinguishes McNeal from nearly every other writer working in America these days—his unironic affection for the characters he brings so richly to life."—Ehud Havazelet, author of Bearing the Body

"Smart, sexy, gorgeous, and at times devastatingly sad—these words describe the woman at the heart of this wonderful novel almost as well as they do the book itself. This ravishing love story will envelop you for a few days and then linger for a long time thereafter."—Ann Packer, author of Swim Back to Me and The Dive from Clausen's Pier

"To Be Sung Underwater is such an immensely readable novel. McNeal has the enviable talent of making splendid writing look easy at no cost to the complexity and the beauties of what fascinates him (and me) — the terrain occupied by women and men in love with each other. This is a wonderful book."—Richard Ford

"In this thoughtful and compelling look at the road not taken, McNeal calls up the landscape of the Great Plains as a place where it's possible to see that it's the simple things—a secluded swimming hole, a cold beer, the laughter of the person you love—that are the most valuable."—Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

"Tom McNeal's absorbing novel To Be Sung Underwater is a quiet and immersive story about "who gets handed your heart and what they do with it." The novel examines how one woman's navigation through life propels her forward in a certain direction, leaving rippling heartache in her wake.... McNeal's ability to tell the story from a female point of view is shockingly accurate, as is his Richard Russo-esque ability to make small town characters simply complicated, juxtaposing the human experience with remarkable depth.... Gradually developing comprehensive characters that resonate with the contemporary themes of choice and yearning, McNeal's work feels like an anthology of human experience as he artfully weaves the protagonist's intricate back story with her present life. To Be Sung Underwater is a beautiful novel that bravely examines the effect a broken relationship can have on one's life path."—Carrie Keyes, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"[An] exceptional novel.... A few pages into it, I was blissfully lost in the two worlds of Judith Toomey, first in her high-school years in Nebraska, and decades later, in her grown-up life as a wife, mother and film editor in Los Angeles. Mr. McNeal writes a kind of prose that's almost endangered today: natural, smooth and subtle... Yet he produces one extraordinary sentence after another as he unspools two irresistible tales. If you despair of the vigor and grace of modern fiction, read this."—Cynthia Crossen, The Wall Street Journal

"To Be Sung Underwater beautifully sings the story of one woman's wrestling with the present realities of a life she created after shedding her hometown skin and abandoning the lover who knew her best. Author Tom McNeal (Goodnight, Nebraska) intricately develops the emotional ties between his characters, capturing the essence of the human heart while rejoicing in the restorative power of reconnection. The novel shows that we may not be able to bring our past with us into the present, but by looking back, we might see just where we are truly meant to be."—Tara Pettit, BookPage

"Many of us wonder what happened to our first love, if we haven't managed to keep in touch on FaceBook. In Tom McNeal's beautifully written novel, To Be Sung Underwater, 44-year-old Judith Whitman goes a tad further than merely wondering.... It's a compelling story, uniting the literary, character-driven novel with what eventually becomes quite a page turner.... These two men, Judith's father and Willy, are wonderfully drawn, complicated characters, both calm, thoughtful, loving and intelligent, with their own unique life philosophies. And smooth-talking Willy has a wry humor that is downright sexy. Readers, along with Judith, will fall in love with him.... the story keeps you up at night. This novel will make for great book-club discussions.... [McNeal] is a brilliant writer."—Sarah Willis, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer

"Tom McNeal is one of the finest examples [of Stanford's Wallace Stegner fellows] to come along in a while.... How can you recognize the Stegner training? First, the novel is so carefully written. You cannot skip sentences, paragraphs or even words without missing something. Second, the main characters, Judith and Willy, are exquisitely drawn, backward and forward.... Third, the world of the novel is full of meaning, full of metaphor, a kind of spirituality that has no need for dogma or churches or liturgy.... Fourth and finally, the wisdom: Stegner's novels (and so often those of his students in the program) by withholding judgment teach the reader something about what kind of person he or she wants to be. Consider this simple sentence: "looking back, he thought she was only as happy as a person waiting for the next phase of her life might be." Such insights require not only experience and intelligence but also patience and wisdom. To Be Sung Underwater is blessed with these qualities.... Can you go back to that purer, better self? It's one of the best questions in literature.... Love stories have a terrible gravity, a centrifugal force. McNeal has created characters so dimensional, so memorable, that we are caught up in that urgency. Our rationality is compromised; the rules of the world fade away. This is your last chance, Judith, do you hear me? - we shout at the flimsy pages. Get yourself back to Rufus Sage, Neb., and fast! There's not a moment to lose!"—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times"hypnotic .... "To Be Sung Underwater" is Judith's mishearing of a song title, which she imagines refers to dolphins and whales listening to an ocean melody. But the spellbinding otherworldliness of the title fits this novel's lyrical language, too. McNeal moves ef­fortlessly through time to tell the twin tales of Judith's past and present, making you feel the radiant importance of 15-year old Judith's summer with Willy, when her parents' marriage split. Their courtship is sweet and authentic, and we get to experience it from first blush to last kiss. It's hard not to fall in love with Willy yourself.... McNeal captures the flush of first love and the endurance of real devotion, even as he probes deeper questions: Who are we with the ones we love, and who are we without them? "For you, I was a chapter," Willy tells Judith. "For me, you were the book." Heartbreaking, messy and incredibly sad, To Be Sung Underwater is so vividly written that it takes you to a place where all your perceptions seem dizzyingly altered. Which is, of course, exactly like love itself."—Caroline Leavitt, The Washington Post

Library Journal
Judith Whitman is a 44-year-old successful film editor in Los Angeles, with patient husband Malcolm, teenage daughter Camille, and a big secret. Twenty-seven years after she left Rufus Sage, NE, to attend Stanford University, she can't stop thinking about her first love, Willy Blunt. Willy wanted to marry her, but she wanted to go to college first. Then she met Malcolm and just never returned. Judith's life veers off course because of her obsession, and under the assumed name Edie Winks, she hires a private detective to trace her Nebraska friend. She is shocked to find out that Willy ended up marrying her best friend, Deena. Nevertheless, he returns her call and leaves a distressing message that he needs to see her immediately. Covering her trip with lies and a fabricated story about her mother being in a hospital in Mexico, Judith takes off for Nebraska for one last reunion with Willy. Their meeting is very nostalgic but turns bittersweet when she learns the real reason for his desperate plea. VERDICT Award winner McNeal (Goodnight, Nebraska) deftly blends flashbacks of Judith's teen years living with her father in humdrum Rufus Sage with her crisis-filled life in fast-paced L.A. [See Prepub Alert, 12/13/10.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO
Library Journal
McNeal made his name a dozen years ago with Goodnight, Nebraska, and here revisits small-town life by featuring a heroine who wanted to escape it. Judith Whitman believed in passionate love, and she surely loved steady carpenter Willy Blunt. But he was not about to leave Nebraska, and she was. Years later, unsettled in her marriage, she's starting to wonder if she made a mistake—and the chance of finding out looks to be just a phone call away. Sooo romantic, says the publicist, but the taut writing puts it above slush. A literate heartbreaker that reading groups will likely demand.
Caroline Leavitt
…McNeal captures the flush of first love and the endurance of real devotion, even as he probes deeper questions: Who are we with the ones we love, and who are we without them?…Heartbreaking, messy and incredibly sad, To Be Sung Underwater is so vividly written that it takes you to a place where all your perceptions seem dizzyingly altered. Which is, of course, exactly like love itself.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316127394
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 6/2/2011
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom McNeal was born in Santa Ana, California, where his father and grandfather raised oranges. He spent part of every summer at the Nebraska farm where his mother was born and raised, and after earning a BA in English at UC Berkeley and an MFA in Creative Writing at UC Irvine, he taught school in the town that was the inspiration for his first novel, Goodnight, Nebraska. Tom has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and his short stories have been widely anthologized.

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Read an Excerpt

To Be Sung Underwater

A Novel
By McNeal, Tom

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2011 McNeal, Tom
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316127394

Prologue

The man sits hidden among pines on a bluff overlooking the grid of farms and county roads lying north. It is hot. Several times now the man has moved his three-legged camp stool to maintain full shade. That is how long he has been waiting and watching and drinking. He watches through a scope, a 3 × 9 × 40 Bushnell, the one he has used in his lifetime for large, wary prey—deer, for example, and sometimes antelope.

The first sign of the car is the distant moving cloud of dust that rises behind it. The dust plume is denser than most; the car is moving right along. When it slows to take the hard right turn at Bethel Church and its length presents itself, heat vapors distort the image—the car seems almost a mirage. But it is yellow. It is definitely yellow. So it is her. It is very probably her. A hand takes hold of the man’s heart, and its rhythmic squeeze and release causes tender but actual pain.

The car falls out of view for a time, then turns south, onto the creek road. The man raises himself and lumbers to another position. He scales down the scope and follows the glimpses of the yellow car as it passes through the cottonwoods and ash that line the road. There are three creeks to ford. This all takes time. Finally the car splashes through the last creek and rolls up into the space the man has cleared for that purpose. For several seconds, no one gets out of the yellow car. Then the passenger does—a woman, carrying a soft-sided leather bag. She leans into the car to speak to the driver, perhaps to satisfy herself on some point or other, then she steps back so the driver can execute a three-point turnaround.

She watches the car go. Her back is to the man in the pines looking down. Finally, when the car is beyond the creek and out of view, she turns toward the trail. She does not at once begin to walk. She stands with the slouchy leather bag at her feet, looking up and scanning the hills. For a second or two she seems to look fixedly at the shaded spot where the man sits hidden. She cannot see him, the man is sure of it, but he can see her. Through the rifle scope, he can see her clearly. 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.

It’s you. This is what he thinks. It is all he can think. You, you, you, you, you.

Part One

1

The swerve (to use Judith’s own term) that slipped her outside the customary course of her life derived from one of those offhand moments in which odd circumstances and amplified emotions invite an odd and overcolored response. Amusement was the presumed objective, whatever the actual result might be.

“It was strange,” she said when she spoke of it, which was only once, and much later, to her friend Lucy Meynke. “My life had utterly settled into itself and then this little… swerve occurred, or maybe I meant it to occur, maybe I’d actually plotted it out in one of those corners of your brain or heart you access only in dreams.” She gave Lucy Meynke a look of actual bafflement. “I really don’t know.”

At the time, though, it seemed simple. Judith was renting a storage garage for some old furniture and when, late in the transaction, she was asked her name, she gave one that was not her own, a name that in fact she hadn’t thought of in years. A few hours later, Judith, who was not a loser of keys, lost a key.

Prior to this so-called swerve, Judith Whitman had reached the age of forty-four without serious casualty or setback. This was not mere luck. All her life she’d constructed plans for her life sturdy enough to weather the seasons but skeletal enough to allow for necessary modifications. Without seeming to step carefully, she’d stepped carefully. She’d built not just a formidable life, but the very one she’d wanted. At the moment she gave a clerk in a mini-storage yard a name not her own, Judith had a successful career, a smart, socially capable daughter, and a husband who loved her.

She also had two secrets.

Judith held the conviction that above the more routine types of love formed—and, she believed, diluted—by blood ties or economic pragmatism or even geographic proximity, there existed the kind of love that, as she once explained it to Lucy Meynke, picks you up in Akron, Ohio, and sets you down in Rio de Janeiro. (“The Rio Variation, we’ll call it,” Judith said. Lucy Meynke remarked that she herself had most often experienced the kind of love that picked you up in Minneapolis and set you down in St. Paul.) Judith believed in the Rio Variation because she had herself experienced it, but only once, and that with a boy she’d thereafter abandoned, and yet never quite left behind. This boy was her first secret.

They’d become fully acquainted during her senior year in high school in a town of medium size on the high plains, where she was living with her father and constructing those plans that would take her first off to college and then to Los Angeles to somehow help in the making of movies. The boy was a few years older than Judith, a carpenter whose pale blue eyes and mixed scent of sawdust, sweat, and alcohol could exert an insistent pull on her from ten feet, and when at the end of their summer together he had suggested marriage, Judith had said, Oh, yes, the answer is yes, definitely yes, she did want to marry him, only later, when she came back from college. But she hadn’t come back from college. She met someone else, an older, urbane, tennis-playing boy enrolled in the business school, a genial and impressive boy with whom she slept in his slender twin bed, establishing in their sex and their sleep an easy unforced synchronicity that they learned to apply to their daylight dealings as well. Although uncertain how much—or even if—she loved him, it was Judith who suggested that someone like him might want to marry someone like her. Malcolm Whitman’s hair was fine and long and beautifully groomed, his wrists were thin, his smile small but playful. “Is this a proposal?” he said, and Judith said yes, come to think of it, it probably was. Malcolm Whitman said, “Then I accede with enthusiasm.” He gave her a kiss of surprising length and intensity, after which he leaned back and became again his Malcolmish self. “Marriage,” he said. “I had no idea you were so intrepid.” This was the way Malcolm Whitman spoke, with a quick, slightly distanced wryness that Judith had always found attractive, and still did, up to a point.

At Judith’s suggestion, the newlyweds moved to Los Angeles, where Malcolm converted his competence and connections to significant positions and income, and where Judith eventually found work in movies. She worked first as a personal assistant to an actor-director, whose help, over time, afforded her the chance to apprentice in editing, the field that attracted her. She waited nearly eight years before bearing a child—a healthy daughter christened Camille—and thereafter avoided pregnancy. She lost none of her confidence in shaping her life, but at some point she began to grasp that achieving one’s ends was no guarantee of happiness, at least not happiness of the unadulterated variety. Judith didn’t have the appetites that lead to such things as obesity, casual infidelity, or credit card problems. She and Malcolm lived in a good neighborhood, they had respectable careers and pleasant friends, their daughter was enrolled in the Waterbury School. Judith wrote these and other assets in a long column one afternoon in hopes of improving her mood—this was before the swerve—then stared at the list without any feeling whatever. On another occasion, while searching for unbruised bananas at Vons, she suddenly stopped and thought, If for one year all the movies were based on lives like mine, the industry’s kaput. This was not a completely random thought. Judith habitually considered her living days in terms of something she privately called My Movie. For example, even as her first editing job was receiving praise from the director, Judith was thinking, Okay, this scene is going into My Movie. More often she thought things like, My Movie should be tossed from the nearest pier. Or, if tired, something simpler, as in, My Movie is crap. Fairly often she wondered whether the chief character in her movie could be considered sympathetic.

So she had forgotten the boy in the high-plains state. After meeting Malcolm, she stopped writing letters to the boy and stopped answering the telephone. She would later tell herself she’d needed to be cruel. She’d seen that, upon returning from Rio, life attached to the boy would not in any way resemble the life she’d planned for herself. She had just one photograph of him, and kept it hidden in her wallet between pictures of her daughter. From time to time, Judith took the photograph out and stared at it. She had snapped the picture during one of their picnics, and its image of his relaxed attitude was calming, and allowed her to imagine his forgiveness.

When she’d known the boy, he lived with his parents, and for many years she would dial their telephone number, which she knew by heart. The boy (by then factually a man, though she could only vaguely think of him as such) never answered. It was always his mother, and often Judith would linger before hanging up so that his mother might say hello again in her gentle voice. Judith felt comforted by this. But one night the boy’s father answered her call. He had always seemed to Judith a stony, redoubtable man, and so on this day, when a few seconds of silence had passed and the boy’s father said in a small, almost pleading whisper, “Is that you, Willy?” Judith, with the phone to her ear, felt as if a hatchway had just been opened into deepest space. She put down the receiver as gently as she could. There had been yearning in the father’s whisper, she was sure of it. It seemed clear that something had separated Willy from his parents, some kind of estrangement that his father found regrettable. Judith resolved to telephone again, this time identifying herself so that she could inquire about their son and unravel the mystery, or at least prize free some useful hints, but by the time she actually did call again, the boy’s parents had acquired an answering machine with a leaden message noting that whatever the caller had to say was very important to them, so please leave a message. But Judith left no messages. Finally—this was perhaps three years ago—Judith, after dialing, heard a recorded voice report that the number was no longer in service.

The other of Judith’s important secrets was her fear that she hadn’t properly inhabited her role as a mother. She knew she loved her daughter, but it was a love with a strange insulating distance built into it. Judith had delivered Camille without so much as a Tylenol. She hadn’t screamed. She’d worried about screaming, and about flatulence or even voiding, and of losing her inhibitions and throwing off her clothes, all of the things she’d heard delivering mothers might do, but when the time came she’d gone to war. She’d clenched her teeth and grabbed a nurse’s hand with her right hand and Malcolm’s with her left, and she had, as she described it afterward only to herself, fucking gone to war. When it was over she turned to the side table where the nurse was quickly wiping the bloody little Camille clean while Malcolm (woozy as she was, Judith knew what he was up to) discreetly checked for malformation and missing digits, and at the moment the nurse held up for view the cleaned pink bawling baby, the thoughts that came unbidden to Judith’s mind were these: Could that possibly have been inside me? And, Could that possibly be mine?

Other mothers seemed to immerse themselves in their mothering lives without a wayward thought, but from the beginning Judith had dreams of extrication. She missed only two weeks of work before leaving Camille in the hands of Sunova from Denmark, the first nanny. For a time, Judith dutifully pumped milk at work, but she gave up morning-and-evening breast feedings when Camille (whom already they were often calling Milla) cut sharp teeth. The child grew and the nannies came and went. It had been true in those early years, as Judith told friends, that she never failed to thrill with gladness at seeing Camille’s beaming face when she returned home in the evening, but the complementary, unspoken truth was that she never failed to feel relief each morning when she left the child behind. Even as Camille’s beauty and precocity took form, when pride alone might have nurtured proprietary feelings, she never seemed quite the child Judith was meant to call her own. Malcolm began to care for Camille on weekends, and, over time, more and more became the intermediary agent with the nannies and schoolteachers and Brownie troop leaders. Friends would often remark on Camille’s physical resemblance to her mother, but in attitude and expression, the girl grew less in Judith’s image than in Malcolm’s.

From an early age, Judith heard a number of gloomy aphorisms applied to marriage, nearly all of them by her own mother. All marriages come with a pinhole leak, her mother once said. Marriages swallow love and excrete grief. Marriage is a house a woman can’t leave and a man merely visits. (Or, as a variant: Marriage is a house with a woman locked inside.)

One morning, sitting at the kitchen table—this was after Judith’s father had left them in Vermont to take a teaching position in Nebraska—her mother said to Judith, “Our marriage, like all marriages, was happy until it wasn’t.” It was a pronouncement, like many of her mother’s, that Judith could neither quite believe nor forget. Later, without really wanting to, she would occasionally hold her own marriage up to her mother’s stark vision, but when she did, it was like those x-rays her dentist sometimes clipped up to a light panel—she was never quite sure what she was seeing.

True, there were whole hours and even days when Judith was visited by a dull ache that in spite of its unspecific origin seemed symptomatic of yearning, but there were also whole hours and days of productivity, good cheer, and reasonably warm fellow-feeling that she presumed she should, to be fair about it, call happiness, or something within inches of it. She averted her eyes from marriages—and they were everywhere—that had lost their fondness, but that wasn’t Judith and Malcolm’s circumstance. Their sexual relations were often routine but occasionally weren’t, and they were otherwise at ease with each other—they laughed, touched, talked, did all the things couples in good standing do. Once, when all the diners at a small party were asked to name the one aspect of their marriage of which they were most proud, Malcolm said, “We can travel significant distances together in a car without annoyance.” It was both ironic and true. They rarely argued.

There were points of disagreement, of course, and 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, was among them. The three-piece grouping comprised a bed with a tall, ornate headboard, a high, narrow chest of drawers that Judith—like her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather—called a chiffonier, and a marble-topped washstand that the family had always called a commode. Judith took possession of the furniture after her father’s death eleven years before, and shipped it home along with his personal papers. “The venerable pater’s venerable papers,” said Malcolm, casting a doubtful eye on the cardboard boxes lining an entire wall of their home office. (After two or three stifling conversations, he and Judith’s father had kept their distance. Judith believed this was because they both wanted to occupy the same irony-dense space.)

Judith loved the look of the bird’s-eye maple furniture, though this feeling might be confused with her pleasure in its family history, whereas Malcolm didn’t like the furniture in the slightest (it might, he said once, be coveted in Croatia), and, probably as a consequence, neither did Camille. When Camille was nine she glued multicolored sparkles to the veneer (Judith spent an entire Sunday cleaning them off), and then this past year, nearing age sixteen, she began angling for a canopied cherrywood bed, which, without Judith’s advance knowledge, arrived one day along with a companion dresser and nightstand.

“Where did all this come from?” Judith said. She’d been led to the room by Camille, with Malcolm following behind.

“Thomas Moser!” Camille sang out.

The bed was so tall it came with matching cherry step stools for either side.

Judith turned to Malcolm. He was still an imposingly handsome man, though she’d begun to notice that his clothes and grooming were carrying more of the load. His thinning hair and flyaway eyebrows were trimmed weekly, and expensive clothes weren’t wasted on him—even now, at the end of a summer’s day, his gray trousers and white shirt were perfectly creased.

“A birthday present,” he said. “I let her choose. I said, ‘The bed or a hollow artificial celebration?’ She chose the bedroom suite. That’s why the occasion of her birthday will slip by without the usual extravaganza.” He eyed Camille. “Ain’t that so, Miss Pie?”

As with most bright children, in Judith’s opinion, Camille’s was a calculating nature. By pretending to be so overwhelmed by the furniture, she managed to avoid the question of the forgone party. To Judith, who was on to her daughter, this indicated that in Camille’s mind it was not quite forgone. The girl—thin, long-limbed, often mistaken for an athlete, which she was not—climbed onto the bed and lay there smiling up at the beribboned canopy. She said that the bed was very deluxe, her father’s word, spoken with her father’s ironical inflection.

Judith said, “Precious is the word I’d use.”

Camille’s expression, already bright, brightened to something like glee, and Judith realized too late that her sour response was exactly what Camille had hoped for.

Judith—she knew she shouldn’t—said, “Pity the poor Joe who marries you, Camillikins.”

Camille held her smile even though she hated the term Camillikins. Malcolm slipped Judith a look. He’d brought up this kind of talk when he and Judith had made their single foray into family counseling. Malcolm and the counselor agreed that remarks of this type could weaken Camille’s self-esteem. Judith said that was fine by her. Camille had oodles of self-esteem. What was in short supply were the odd little commodities like empathy, charity, and humility. Malcolm and the counselor had fallen momentarily quiet, then begun to talk as if she weren’t there. Judith hadn’t gone back.

Camille hugged a pillow to her chest. “This bed is titanic. What if for my birthday I just had two or three friends for a sleepover? We could all sleep sideways on the bed, like we did at Lauren Hartman’s.”

Malcolm smiled. “Lauren Hartman! Lauren Hartman! Must we always play catch-up with Lauren Hartman?”

“Yes!” Camille said, and dropped ten years from her voice. “Catch-up and mustard, too!”

This was a game they played, an exclusive little tea party of father-daughter silliness (and of denial, too—Camille had been wearing bras for four years now, and a few months back Judith had discovered several lacy, vividly colored thongs tucked into a deep corner of the bottom drawer of the chiffonier), and Camille and Malcolm laughed easily, lost in each other’s needs, hers to acquire, his to provide. It was no surprise when he said, “Okay, then, Miss Pie, but the maximum guest list is two.”

Camille’s smile dried up. She seemed capable of crying. “What about Torry?”

The barest moment passed before Malcolm complied. “Okay, three. But that’s it—three, tops.”

Camille plopped back into the fluff of her duvet, thinking.

Judith asked something she’d been wondering since entering the room. “So what did you do with the bird’s-eye maple?”

Malcolm nodded toward the window.

Judith pulled back the French lace curtains. Down at the edge of the bricked pool deck, her father’s old furniture stood clustered in the glaring sun, the bed’s rails, headboard, and footboard sandwiched between the backsides of the commode and chiffonier.

It was not as if something snapped inside Judith. It was more an unfolding, a slow blossoming of resentment. She couldn’t have expected more from Camille, Judith understood that, but what about Malcolm? He was a grown-up, wasn’t he? If he needed to present this whole deal as a fait accompli, couldn’t he soften the fait a little? The unmatched oak stuff they had in the guest room was no better than average, for example—why not put the maple in there and set the oak out to warp and split in the freaking sun?

Though, when she thought of it, that would’ve annoyed her, too, shunting the maple to the guest room, where every day it would be eyed for replacement by Malcolm.

Judith took in three short staggered breaths, which, together, deeply filled her lungs. She held the air a moment before slowly releasing it, and then she repeated the process. This was the only lesson learned in her Lamaze class that she regarded as worthwhile.

When finally she spoke, she was surprised at how calm she sounded. “I’m afraid they’ll blister out there,” she said.

“You’re right,” Malcolm said, “they might. I’ll cover them up.” Within the hour—before he set off in his whites to the tennis club—he’d neatly wrapped the furniture with old bedsheets and bound them at the base with green gardening twine, tied off with a bow knot, a knot that Willy Blunt, long ago, seeing it used by a traveler trying to fasten a tarp, had stepped in to replace with something sounder.



Continues...

Excerpted from To Be Sung Underwater by McNeal, Tom Copyright © 2011 by McNeal, Tom. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 77 )
Rating Distribution

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(37)

4 Star

(22)

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(8)

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(5)

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(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 77 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 4, 2011

    RATING:4.5) AN EPIC LOVE STORY! TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER BY TOM MCNEAL...

    TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER by TOm McNeal is a wonderful epic love story set in Nebraska and Los Angles. What a sad,intense,heartbreaking and compelling story of love,secrets,life,second chances,fixing broken pieces of your heart,told with tenderness,that is truly unforgettable. The characters are engaging,sometimes witty,vivid and will trul capture your heart with their flawed,sometimes funny personalities.You will get sweep away with this truly epic love story. "To Be Sung Underwater" will leave you with an intense feeling of sadness and happiness as Willy and Judith comes to grip with their past and their future.This story will have your turning pages and have you desperately hoping for the best.A great story that is well written whose characters could be the family next door. This book was received for the purpose of review from Reading Romance Blog and the publisher and details can be found at Little,Brown and Company,a division of Hachette Book Group and My Book Addiction Reviews.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 7, 2011

    BookHounds

    Judith has been married to Malcolm and begins to wonder if she married the right man. Her thoughts turn to Willy, the boy she left behind years ago. The story flips back and forth between the present and the years before when she first met Willy. The story flows easily between the two time periods and you can easily get a feel for how Judith has matured. She has a dream job editing films, a lovely home and a man she thinks might be cheating on her. The drama builds effortlessly and the words are so lovingly chosen that you won't want to skip a one. I had to go back and read several paragraphs over since the writing is just so exquisite.

    The characters stuck with me long after I finished this book. This book would make an excellent movie since it feels like everything is in perfect order and you can see each scene unfold into the next. I am so glad that more authors are turning up from Orange County and especially the University of California, Irvine. This book would be a winning choice for a book club since there are so many interesting angles that can be discussed.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 1, 2011

    Incredibly compelling story

    I'm not much of a fiction reader but this was an amazingly well told story with characters I feel like I really know and care about. Be forewarned - you won't want to put it down!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 14, 2011

    Enjoyed but.....

    I enjoyed reading this novel but it really needed an epilog. There were too many questions unanwered. The writer made me really care for Judith so the ending was just not satisfactory. I actually looked for more pages when I knew there were none.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Very highly recommended!

    As an avid reader, this is the first novel that I have felt completely compelled to review. From the first sentence to the final word, I found myself stealing seconds out of the day to read the next paragraph...or word. Even though I "knew' the ending, it still left me in shock and silently screaming "NO! This can't be the end!" This novel left me in silent tears mourning both the loss of the love of my life from my college days more than 40 years ago to the fragility of my current 8 year relationship and all the resultant "what ifs?".

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 11, 2012

    Recommended

    Good story with interesting connection between present and past. It was not one of the more compelling books I've read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2011

    Extraordinary.....

    The author reaches out and wraps you within the pages of this book!
    Beautifully written, hard to put down...you'll be thinking about what you have experienced within this story, long after you have finished the last page.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2013

    This was a really great read. The author's writing style is wond

    This was a really great read. The author's writing style is wonderful, the story goes back and forth in time but not is a confusing way. The time changes actually help fill in the story as the main character looks back and forth in her life.  I guess many people wonder if they married the right person and about the person they left behind. This is a classic look at that circumstance and is so well done. It does cause reflection. The story is beautiful and sad and had me deeply engrossed throughout. I keep thinking about the ending. Was that the right ending? It certainly was for this character and this book, but in real life? 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2013

    This was one of those amazing reads that I never wanted to end!

    This was one of those amazing reads that I never wanted to end! I totally adored this book and the depth of the characters, the poignancy of their flaws and the  author's brilliant weave of suspense, love and sorrow. I wish I could read 10 more books that made me feel the way this book did when I finished. It was pure escape and pure joy.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 2, 2013

    Beautifully written! Caution - this novel may inspire you to a m

    Beautifully written! Caution - this novel may inspire you to a moment of self-reflection.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2012

    A Good One

    I absolutely loved this stiry. It was so well written and surprised even me. Many thanks to the author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2012

    Excellent book!!

    I throughly enjoyed this book. The story and the sentence structure used to weave this enchanting and thought provoking tale are magical. After I finished reading the story, I felt as if I had to go back and reread it immediately in order to fully appreciate the author's incredible talent......the second reading was even more beautiful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2012

    The romance, the humor, the sadness and regret, it was all there

    The romance, the humor, the sadness and regret, it was all there in this book and I loved it! The ending surprised me! I loved Willy's Character!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 21, 2012

    Difficult to read

    I purchased this book on the recommendation of a friend and because of all the great reviews. I simply could not get through this book. I stuck with it till about half way through thinking it would pick up but I finally gave up (something I rarely do). The writing was boring, the characters too muddled and I just didn't enjoy the plot. Wouldn't recommend.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2011

    Worth every page!

    Couldn't put it down! The writing was spectacular. Well worth every minute I spent reading

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  • Posted October 12, 2011

    A Great Read!

    It took me a bit to get into this book but once I did I couldn't put it down. The story is real characters with a story line that holds you right to the end. A good quick read for a fall night!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2011

    Well Written

    This is a book about a young woman coming of age in Nebraska, going off to college, getting married, having it all and questioning what she left behind in Nebraska. The book kept me interested but was disappointed in the ending. I felt that there had been another ending and the author decided not to use it for some reason. It ended too quickly and made me think "Why did the author do this?". I guess I like endings that have closure. However I would still recommend this book because of the excellent writing and interesting characters.

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  • Posted August 24, 2011

    Recommend with care.

    Just finished the book, and literally kept looking to see if I'd missed some pages, or possibly the Nook hadn't fully downloaded the book. When infact after reading other reviews, it turns out it's just a lousy ending. I'm completely frustrated and sad that this is how the author choose to end the chapter. Judith never provides Willy with any closure, she was just this emotional void of a woman in the last pages. Brutal, to an overwhelmingly emotional Willy. This made her character, to me, very cold and callus from start to finish. Just seemed to me that her character never felt or understood the enormity of what had transpired between Willy and herself. As the reader, I felt very jilted, left with too many unasnswered questions.

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  • Posted August 19, 2011

    Of

    Top read of the summer. Bar none.

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  • Posted August 13, 2011

    Live To Read

    Judith always believed in marriage. She has her dream job and a husband she considered nice enough. Now, she wonders if her husband is cheating on her and her thoughts continually drift to Willy, a boy she loved long ago. The novels switches between the past and the present. The reader will get a sense of what went on long ago and how Judith came to make her present choices. Judith is an interesting character, she is nice, caring, and overall "smart" in her choices...




    The reader will get to know Judith very well, to the point of guessing her decisions before they happen. Judith is a sympathetic character, her great life is not exactly what it seems. Judith wonders about her past life and how her friends are doing, specifically Deena-a very intriguing character-and Willy. Her current lifestyle is nothing like her hippie mothers' or her fathers'-who has multiple affairs. She now has to choose between Willy and her current lifestyle...or can she merge the two in some way? This novel is fast-paced and fun to read. This book would be great for adults who enjoy women's fiction.

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