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Monday, March 9, 2015

Review: Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet’s trilogy that began with How the Dead Dream and ended with Magnificence has an astounding authorial voice with a knack for choosing the right words and at the same time, it adapts to her chosen protagonist’s thought patterns. Mermaids in Paradise, ostensibly fluffier, continues to display Millet’s versatility with a narrator who starts out unsympathetic although comical. As the book goes on, Deb, a new bride on a Caribbean honeymoon with her perfect husband, is drawn into the events and sloughs off the defensive sarcasm she’s learned from her best friend, showing some of her depth and becoming easier to sympathize with.

The plot, too, seems distant and standard for some time. The eventual introduction of the mermaids stands out for the magical description of Deb’s experience, but larger society’s reaction to the mermaids is on the zanier end of predictable.

Then the climax hits like a ton of bricks, giving meaning to the entire novel. I adored the way the mermaids were saved from exploitation. Deb rhapsodizes about the progression of humans from Australopithecines to Homo sapiens, figuring that nothing much happened for five million years, but then came speaking, and then writing, and here we are today, with all the destruction that the technology made possible by writing has wrought.


My takeaway, influenced by the amazing whale-filled climax (and the rash of end-of-civilization literature I’ve been exposed to, no doubt), is that people must not assume we can or should control the natural world. We are part of nature, not separate from it.

And then another unforeseen revelation hits like two tons of bricks, giving another meaning to the novel. Deb could possibly arrive at my takeaway even with this last surprise, but, drugged up after some injuries, she just kind of gives it an “oh well,” which returns us to the meaninglessness of the beginning. Devastating, in typical Millet style. I've seen complaints about the ending, and I assume it's this last-page shocker that bothers others. I don't think it could be a Millet novel without the rug being pulled out from under the reader. The phenomenon fascinates me but turns others off.


Make no mistake: Mermaids in Paradise is a complex novel with incredible expertise behind it. All that and mermaids (and whales!), too!

Novels I've Read in 2015:
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Along the Far Shores by Kristin Gleeson

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A Kiss at Kihali by Ruth Harris