The Bossy Bookworm
Review of American Mermaid by Julia Langbein
This story within a story is playful and satirical while providing deep issues to contemplate. It's different and captivating and silly and sobering.
How could we be readers, how could we be lovers of the impossible and the imagined, and not want to swell up with a new character, pull it onto land from a sea we made, and trick it by disappearing behind our hands?
I've been so very excited for this book for ages, and I'm glad to finally be diving in! (See what I did there?)
Penelope Schleeman is an English teacher struggling to make ends meet when her feminist novel American Mermaid becomes a bestseller. Penny is hooked on the promise of a big payday and leaves her teaching position in Connecticut to move to Los Angeles and turn her novel into a script.
There is nothing mythological about this: Have you ever seen a mother spring up from a table when her child, two floors above, has a fall? Mothers move in the dark at night, while men fumble for the lights.
But others' visions for the story involve her eco-warrior main character morphing into a teen beauty wearing a clamshell bra, wiping away her complex hero's dark motivations, and erasing much of what makes the story worth telling.
Then mysterious threats and unexplained feminist changes begin appearing within the script, aimed at the writers who know how to make a shallow, profitable movie--but who are picking apart what made her novel sing in the first place.
Penny begins to suspect that she has unleashed a power within her story that somehow allows her mermaid character Sylvia to manipulate the real world. Even the posed explanations don't fully hold water (I'm sorry, but I can't stop the puns), making the reader wonder about the nature of multiple mysterious occurrences.
"You have to be like your namesake."
"Penelope Gruber, my mom's best friend from growing up? I should be an eye doctor outside of Tampa?"
"No, the original Penelope. From the Odyssey. Who undoes her own tapestry every night. Never finishes it. The men never get to possess her."
This story within a story echoes back and forth with linking elements including explorations of power, femininity, and the weight of perception. The Penny-in-Los-Angeles storyline offers some hilarious (and often cringey) peeks at the world of movie-making as the script writers aim to ruthlessly distill the story to cinematic visuals rather than a tale buoyed (I know, I know) by substance and reflection.
The excerpts from the book within a book of American Mermaid show glimpses of the novel that is the basis for Penny's trajectory--while digging into themes of climate change, greed, and dangerous assumptions about ability and motivation. The story culminates in tragedy or triumph, depending on your point of view.
"Why does she have to be unconscious when she goes underwater? Why don't we get access to that? Can't a woman retain her clearheadedness even when she's doing battle?"
American Mermaid is playful, yet there's a lot of meat on the bones of the often satiric story to dig into. It made me laugh and also made me think. (The imaginary blurbs in the Epilogue purely made me laugh--they're so disturbingly plausible and silly.) This is weird and wonderful, and I hope Langbein has more books in the works.
I received an electronic version of this title, published March 21, courtesy of NetGalley and Doubleday.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
You can find other wonderfully oddball books I've read and reviewed here and here.