The advert on this book — “sometimes all you need in life is a fabulous pair of shoes” — signaled sassy airport chick lit to me, and so I put off reading the book until I was in the right kind of mood. (That’s not meant as snark. I do love frothy chick lit, when I’m in the mood for a spirited heroine, her quirky best friend, a handsome man, and hilarious antics on the seventy-thousand word path to true love. Sometimes you want that, just like sometimes you want to reread Harry Potter for the millionth time.) But The Mermaid of Brooklyn is not a series of comical misunderstandings and glossy retail therapy on the path to romance.
The Mermaid of Brooklyn is set in a very real Brooklyn. Park Slope moms whisk their babies from baby language classes to expressive fingerpainting. Changing times are bringing her in-laws’ candy gift-basket company to a slow, painful bankruptcy. The city manages to be both glowing with possibility, and summer-sticky.
Jenny’s apartment is just a little too small, with too many stairs. The summer is sweaty sticky, the nice things that her friends and neighbors have are just a bit out of reach, she never gets quite enough uninterrupted sleep, and a string of other seemingly-small irritations leave Jenny in a constant state of almost snapping. (I have no idea how one could feel like that in Brooklyn, or how one could feel any other way in North Carolina.)
Magical realism just doesn’t get enough attention in adult literature, but as a fan of superheroes and other modern mythologies, I have no problem with a real-life mermaid. Jenny encounters a russalka, a bitter Russian mermaid. And Jenny has a degree in Russian folklore, one of those “useless liberal arts” degrees that introduces students to the mysterious need for story and magic across all cultures, and points the reader to all the places a mythical creature could live…
The russalka pulls Jenny out of her top-of-the-laundry-basket outfits and into the gorgeous shoes and sundresses she’s been saving for special occasions that never seem to come. She also starts Jenny sewing again. (This is the only chicklit theme in the novel, that our heroine uncovers her secret artistic talent that is the key to both Personal Fulfillment and Financial Independance. But it works, because the dresses she can’t really remember sewing are such a fairy tale theme.)
Each relationship in the book is so amazingly real, whether it’s Jenny’s crush on the neighborhood Cute Stay-at-Home Dad, her marriage to her troubled, missing husband, loaded conversations with her well-meaning and impossible mother-in-law, or almost daily interactions with the girlfriend she isn’t sure is a real friendship or just the accident of living nearby, with young children. Even the bitter russalka is realistic, in a mystical way.
I was unable to stop reading this, long after I should have been asleep.
This is based on a review copy from the publisher. (Thank you!) Opinions are my own. Free books have never stopped me from snarking about a book before.