In his debut novel, Michael J. White has crafted an affecting story of first love and first loss. It’s an observant and often lyrical tale of its protagonists’ efforts to navigate some of the early, stumbling steps on the road to adulthood.

Seventeen-year-old George Flynn has moved with his parents and older brother to Des Moines. Apart from a murder in the Holiday Inn where he and his family spend their first night in town, life for earnest and awkward George, a dedicated if only intermittently successful wrestler, settles into a predictable groove. That is, until he meets Emily Schell, his St. Pius High School classmate and an aspiring actress. George’s “only real ambition was to love Emily in the same fierce and noble way [he’d] loved her from the beginning,” but his infatuation is complicated when he meets her 13-year-old sister, Katie, wise beyond her years and suffering from multiple sclerosis. They form an odd triangle that’s shattered by a tragic accident.

At first George and Emily drift apart, but inevitably they act on their mutual attraction, cemented on an impromptu road trip from Iowa to Colorado. George scraps his plans to attend college and Emily abandons Northwestern University to return home, where the two tumble into a passionate relationship that seems fueled as much by sorrow as by lust. White explores the complex and ever-shifting dynamics of their relationship in a way that’s both intensely realistic and psychologically astute, building a strong foundation on which the novel rests. Though White is nearly two decades removed from his own high school days, he displays an acute recall, and his wit and tenderness leaven the novel’s autumnal sensibility of the events and emotions that cause most people’s memories of those years to range from bittersweet to appalling.

While they’re familiar to all, the territories of love and grief have no signposts. In Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter, Michael J. White has marked out a memorable path through this often forbidding landscape.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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