Judith and Malcolm Whitman live an active LA lifestyle: two careers, she a studio editor, he a banker, both with predictably long hours and a teenaged daughter at home who spends more time with the housekeeper than her parents. Busy, but happy - or so it appears until Judith becomes increasingly stressed and unfocused at work in her small, dark editor’s office, assaulted almost daily by migraines, suspicious about her husband’s relationship with his assistant and undecided what to do with the bedroom set sitting outside her window.
The furniture is from her teenaged bedroom in Nebraska when she lived with her father during her parents’ unacknowledged separation. Rather than donate the furniture to charity, Judith rents a storage unit, later returning to arrange the bed, dresser and nightstand exactly as the room where she was happy the summer before college at Stanford, the summer she fell in love with Willy Blunt.
Twenty years later, Malcolm’s sly remarks aren’t so clever (“Marriage is a house woman can’t leave and a man rarely visits”), the flickering screen of the monitor at work triggers her headaches, and Judith seeks emotional shelter in the faux bedroom in a storage space only available during business hours. Drifting into slumber while hiding from work and family, Judith recalls everything about that fateful season of first love - the pure joy of it, her flight to California when choice became too difficult to face. In these slipping-away hours, Judith Whitman becomes Judith Toomey, in love for the first time and filled with the abandon that happens only once in a lifetime.
What might be saccharine and maudlin in the hands of another writer is magical in McNeal’s imagination. He captures the unbearable brightness of discovery, the danger of reckless passion and the exquisite moments of unmatched natural beauty in a rural landscape before youth is bartered for the future, a love affair left unfinished, a season bartered for career and family and a secret room where the past is poignant and accessible.
Seamlessly, McNeal describes Judith on the cusp of womanhood, nurtured by a wise father who encourages individuality and fearlessness, threat lurking nearby but made irrelevant by the exuberance of first love. Seldom is it possible to resolve past and present, but McNeal weaves a slender path that Judith follows to Willy in a brief collision of her two worlds and a reckoning with fate, a place of heartbreaking regret and scorching honesty.
Making peace with the roads not taken is no easy thing, Judith’s current life on hold as she experiences spellbound days recapturing the essence of her love for Willy, the rightness of it, a temporary respite that fails to ameliorate reality but heals two damaged spirits. McNeal’s writing is delicate, tender and textured, evoking the sweetness of that summer and the poignancy of lost time, the infrequent opportunities to heal old wounds and the shaky but safe passage to forgiveness.
What seems at first an enigmatic title proves in context to be perfectly chosen, symbolic of love’s idiosyncratic language. Traveling between Judith’s LA world and the Nebraska countryside, McNeal seduces his readers as surely as a young Judith captures Willy’s heart, paradise fragile and transient, precious and forfeit to unbearable grief.