Amy Shearn‘s second novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn has a cover blurb from Maria Semple, the author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. This makes sense because the two authors are similar in that theyboth use humor when writing about serious issues like depression and motherhood, whichever comes first. (Just kidding!)
The Mermaid of Brooklyn is a story set in Brooklyn (specifically, the family-friendly neighborhood of Park Slope) in the current day of cell phones and triple strollers with cup holders. Readers get a real feel for the pleasures and the drawbacks of living in the city with children on relatively modest means.
Otherwise, the book is hard to describe. Though being saved by the spirit of a mermaid (specifically a rusulka, the scrappy mermaid of Slavic folk tales) after dying may make you think magical realism (with mysterious things happening all over the city to no one’s astonishment), the story reads more like a literary love letter to her Brooklyn neighborhood from Jenny Lipkin, a very tired stay-at-home mother of two very young children, who has a graduate degree in Russian folklore and a husband who went for cigarettes and never came back.
Jenny narrates the story with a wit and a critical eye that is similar to Bernadette’s riffing on the pretensions of other parents and Seattle in general, but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the story is lighter, airier, hard to sink into. Readers don’t get to know Bernadette or Seattle deeply. In The Mermaid of Brooklyn, readers are right there in the city, suffering through a long, hot summer with Jenny, which she gets through only with the help of her informal support group of other park-visiting parents, and, of course, the mermaid of the title.
This excerpt comes near the beginning of the book:
“When Harry left and I died it was the beginning of a desperately hot summer, a long sun-scorched stretch of days determined to silence doubters of global warming. The sidewalks of Brooklyn baked all around us, Prospect Park an expanse of brownish hay. I had these two babies, and people were always saying that my whole life was ahead of me – nosy grandmothers on the subway tugging at Rose’s bootie or boinging Betty’s curls, neighborhood eccentrics dispensing unsolicited advice from their bodega-front benches. I nodded and thanked them, or sometimes rolled my eyes.”
The Mermaid of Brooklyn explores the highs and lows of parenthood but also the friendships that spring up among parents who happen to fall in together. The eternal question of balancing family vs. career or artistic ambitions is always there in the background, too, whenever the adults aren’t too tired to think about it.
I marked many passages in the book that I would love to share, but here’s just one more excerpt to explain a little bit about the whole mermaid thing. It comes near the beginning of the book, right after Jenny has told two-and-a-half-year-old Betty the often-requested bedtime story about a fish-woman who lived at the bottom of the river:
“The fish-woman stories had emerged from a fit of overparenting pique, when it was revealed that while babysitting one night Grandma Sylvia had exposed my daughter to Disney’s insipid Little Mermaid movie, with its teeny-bopper heroine. I’d relented on a lot of the perfect parenting ideals I’d had as a pre-parent, but this was too much. Mermaids had been my favorite figures in the Slavic fairy-tale pantheon, but it was because they were weird and powerful and a little scary, not because they looked great in clamshell bikinis. I admit that I tended to neglect the girls’ wardrobes – the cuteness quotient of their coats and dresses not nearly as high as one might expect from a pair of brownstone-Brooklyn babies – and things like clipping their nails and educating them about etiquette or God or non-microwaved cuisine. But simpering female role models and saccharine fairy stories? Come on. I left out the parts about mermaids being the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be. I figured that stuff could wait until at least pre-K.”
The Mermaid of Brooklyn will definitely be on my list of favorites of 2013, along with The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. If you liked The Interestings or another New York novel reviewed here recently, The Sunshine When She’s Gone, you’ll probably like The Mermaid of Brooklyn.
The Mermaid of Brooklyn
Touchstone (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$14.99 US/$16.99 CAN
Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the public library, but I’ll buy a copy of the author’s first novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here to add to my towering TBR pile. I don’t remember where I first heard of The Mermaid of Brooklyn. I thought I read an author interview somewhere or heard the author on the Literary New England radio show, but I can’t remember now.