Recently (and by recently I mean in June and July because it took me that long to get this blog post up) I gave myself a fun summer reading challenge… read a whole bunch of books about mermaids all in a row. Really, it came about when I realized that I had accumulated a number of mermaid (and merman) themed books this summer, which seemed like and oddly specific topic. So I set out to read them all together and see what I could learn.
My lineup was this:
- The Seas by Samantha Hunt (a 2018 release courtesy of Tin House)
- Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet (a 2014 release courtesy of A. A. Norton)
- The Pisces by Melissa Broder (a 2018 release from Hogarth Books)
- The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018 release courtesy of Harper Books that hits the shelves TODAY)
When I started getting in all of these mermaid books, I started to wonder why the sudden turn towards mermaids. Granted, one of these books was from 2014, but I had only just heard of it this summer, when I picked it up from the Norton booth at Book Con. What was it about summer 2018 and mermaids? Were all these books going to teach me something relevant to today? Was there some reason all of the mermaid books were coming out at once? It seemed a theme across Bookstagram too that a lot of us were noticing… an oddly specific fantasy creature that was suddenly gracing the cover of a number of new releases (and I was not at all mad about it).
I’m not sure if my little readathon really came up with an answer to that question. But I did discover, in reading all of these books about mermaids, that not a single one of them was actually really about mermaids. Each one uses the mer-people as a way to discuss something else. The mermaids, these fantastical creatures, all represented some other deeper meaning, often a topic that was in some ways difficult to discuss. And although I started this little reading challenge with the idea that I was reading with a theme, these books could not have been more different from one another, and they covered a wide variety of topics. I found myself reading about drunken seaside towns to wealthy vacation resorts to online dating to 1800s England. These books covered topics such as PTSD, addiction, loneliness, happiness, and ocean conservation. So without further ado, lets dive into the books!
(…get it? dive into…?)
I adored this book. This one was a five star read from me. It was short and quick and it packed a powerful and emotional punch. It’s moody and devastating and Hunt writes in an eery, atmospheric way that will haunt you long after you turn the final page. In this one, we get our mermaid theme because our narrator believes she is a mermaid. Her father, who disappeared long before the book begins, told her she was a mermaid when she was young and she hangs onto that belief, hoping she’ll see her father again out at sea. Much of this book could be open to interpretation. Do we really think she is a mermaid? Does she really think she’s a mermaid? For me, this book was a look at mental illness. I have my theories about what was really happening, but it might look completely different to you. I will revisit this one, probably multiple times in the future. It’s that kind of book. It’s absolutely beautiful, from it’s cover to every single word within its pages, and I definitely recommend it.
Mermaids in Paradise
I felt very conflicted about this book for pretty much my entire time reading it, and looking back on it, I still have trouble putting my thoughts into words. This is a strange book. It’s the story of a couple who go on their honeymoon, where they witness a mermaid sighting and then get dragged into a murder investigation/coverup when the resort they’re staying at wants to profit off the mermaids and turn them into an exhibit. Millet is an excellent writer, and this book is hilarious. However, I struggled finding things to grasp onto. It’s a comedy/farce/satire, and it offers up a lot of criticism about our culture and habits. But because it’s so comedic and farcical, I just struggled to connect to any of the characters or find anything to really care about. The ending, although equally as ridiculous as the rest of the book, might have turned it around for me though. I loved the ending. It was crazy and it made me laugh and grin and want to get out and save the oceans. This one was a wild ride but it was a fun one. The mermaids were a huge part, particularly in the latter half of the book, as all of the characters band together to save them from the corporation that is trying to turn them into a money making ploy. And even though in many ways this book isn’t about mermaids at all, it’s almost about mermaids more than any of the other books I read were, if that makes any sense. Like I said, this one was a wild ride and I really don’t know how I felt about it. But I’ll definitely looking into other works by this author because she has me very intrigued!
In an effort to mix things up just a little bit, The Pisces features a merman instead of a mermaid. It’s the story of a woman named Lucy, who goes to house/dog sit for her sister in Los Angeles after she breaks up with her boyfriend. She attends a group therapy session for people with love and sex addiction, she finds solace in cuddling Dominic, her sister’s dog, and she works on her dissertation, a book she’s been trying to finish unsuccessfully for years. In the evenings she walks on the beach and she meets Theo, a merman, who she begins to talk to and later develops a relationship with, despite telling her group that she’s staying away from men. I had an interesting experience reading this book. It’s extremely well written and is a really honest look at love and sex addiction and mental health. It was also kind of hard to read… because Lucy is not the most likable of main characters. Her choices repeatedly made me angry and made me cringe and at times made me want to fling the book across the room. (MINOR SPOILER: she doesn’t treat the dog well and although thematically I completely understand what the author was doing, this definitely made me want to rip the book apart.) I loved the ending (even as I hated parts of it). This book certainly will not be for everyone and I’m still grappling with my thoughts on it, although I’m glad to have read it and am glad for this honest depiction of this aspect of mental health. It’s wonderfully written and is one I will think about often!
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
I think this one might have been my favorite of the mermaid books, and it was another five star read for me… and it is officially out in the world TODAY! I adored this book from start to finish. It is one of those long, sweeping historical stories that takes place over span of years, where you really get to know the characters and see the ways they grow and change. This book tells the story of Mr. Hancock, a merchant whose best sea captain sells his ship in order to buy a mermaid. It also tells the story of Angelica Neal, a “courtesan of great accomplishment,” whose path crosses with Mr. Hancock’s when the mermaid comes into the picture. Set in England in the 1800s, this book was not at all what I expected. The mermaid is of course what sets everything in motion, and what drives this story forward, but this book is not about the mermaid. This book is about so much more. It’s about people, it’s about feminism and race and class, and about history and loneliness and family and time. It’s about the constant search for happiness, even when it’s right in front of you. This book was moving and beautiful and gorgeously written and I absolutely loved it. I want to go back and read it again for the first time. I loved the way the author used the mermaid to represent the search for something more… the mermaid doesn’t not represent something happy here, but rather the search for happiness in a way. And I thought it was so well done. I am so happy this book is out in the world (and is a Book of the Month choice!) and I can’t recommend it enough for those of you who are fans of big sweeping historical stories!
In conclusion, I read a whole bunch of books that I thought were going to be about mermaids… and none of them ended up actually being about mermaids! But it was such a fun experience reading with a theme, and seeing the ways the authors used these mythological creatures to explore and tackle so many meaningful and difficult subjects! They’re all completely different books, and I wouldn’t recommend them all to everyone, but I’d love to talk about them all with anyone who wants to talk! And if I read any more mermaid books, I’ll be continuing to use the hashtag #literaryjoreadsaboutmermaids on Instagram.
Thanks for following along on this mermaid journey!
Also, since reading all these and writing this post, it’s come to my attention that there’s actually an essay about why there are so many mermaids featured in our fiction right now… written by none other than Imogen Hermes Gowar, the author of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. I’m kind of glad I didn’t read the article until after I’d already read all of these, but it made for some good reading to wrap up my little project. I’m linking the essay here for anyone who is interested!