“Mermaids in Paradise” by Lydia Millet (2014)

Millet’s latest work of fiction is not her best, and is a misstep as she tries to expand the scope of her fiction. It is a very readable novel and is capable of keeping the reader’s attention throughout, but it also is at times a confusing and uncomfortable read. Her first foray into speculative fiction, Millet doesn’t really know what to do with the supernatural element that seems to be central to her work this time around.

The narrator and protagonist of the book is Deb who has recently married Chip, her prince charming and an all-around great guy. A lot of the reader’s reaction will come down to how Deb is perceived. The narrator drenches every single observation under layers of irony and judgment. She is the ultimate “cool girl” (to borrow from the Gone Girl definition). She is the anti-girlie woman, she has disdain for all things flowery and traditional, and anyone who happens to conform to that stereotype has no place in Deb’s world. Her best friend, and only one it would seem, is Gina – another character who only wants to subvert societal norms and deride those who conform.

In the days after I finished the book I kept switching back and forth as to how to read the very one-dimensional characters (aside from Deb) that are scattered throughout this novel. Gina is anti-conformist and “over it”. Chip is the prince in shining armor. There’s an annoying mother in law. A dumpy and excitable fish expert. A retired naval officer who is as dense as he is large. The panic-attack prone agoraphobe. I think I’ve made my point. I am unsure if Millet was overwhelmed by the amount of characters in the novel, and was so concerned with Deb that she never fleshed out any of the other character or if it is Deb who is at fault here – a character who only sees others as archetypes. The book never clears this up, and that is a shame.

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Following their wedding, the newlyweds leave for their honeymoon in the Caribbean where they look forward to relaxation and some bonding. What they find, though, is the discovery that mermaids are in fact real and living creatures, albeit paler, blonder, and with worse teeth than Disney’s Ariel had us believing.

The mermaids, unfortunately, only serve as a plot device that leads to a murder-mystery and a cartoonishly action-packed third act. They never get elevated to any real significance and have no role in the book, aside from making a statement about corporate greed, personal gain, and a strange religious commentary that never gets explained in the way that it deserved. Deb remains cynical and ironic throughout – she can never muster the slight bit of earnestness, and as the narrator her tone and observations are all the reader has to go on.

lydia
Lydia Millet

The ending, which I will not reveal, will be highly divisive. I was turned off by it and it nearly angered me, as it came completely from left-field and felt like a cheap way of wrapping up an overall weak story. I expected more out of Millet, and was underwhelmed by this offering of hers. I was promised mermaids and all I got was this lousy novel.

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