Tag Archives: relationships

Sleep-Deprived in Park Slope: The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn @AmyShearn @SimonBooks

cover image of The Mermaid of BrooklynAmy 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
Shearn, Amy
Touchstone (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
April 2013
978-1-4516-7828-4
368 pp.
$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.

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Real Lives of Year-Rounders on Nantucket: Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand

cover image of SummerlandYes, I know, Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand came out LAST summer, and I’ve just gotten around to reading it. I’m even later to the Elin Hilderbrand party than that, because this Massachusetts author had already hit the New York Times bestseller list twice (with The Island and Silver Girl) before Summerland, her eleventh novel, and Summerland is the first one I’ve read to see what all the fuss is about.

Now I know. Elin Hilderbrand is the American answer to Penny Vincenzi. We don’t need to resort to reading about drinking tea and wearing wellies with the English middle and upper middle classes anymore! We’ve got our own comfort reads we can sink into right here. With the added bonus that Elin Hilderbrand’s books’ Nantucket settings make her books perfect for reading while sunk into a beach chair with an American summertime drink close at hand. (Think Nantucket Cocktail.)

In Summerland, tragedy hits the island of Nantucket when a rising senior – the beautiful, talented and beloved Penny Alastair – drives a speeding car full of teens over an embankment after an unsanctioned party on the beach the night of high school graduation. Penny is killed instantly and her twin brother, Hobson – a handsome, gifted athlete, and all-around nice guy – is seriously injured. The two other teens in the car – Demeter, who has the almost empty bottle of Jim Beam in her bag and Jake, Penny’s longtime boyfriend – are physically unhurt, but mentally traumatized.

Summerland is about the responses to this tragic accident from different points of view – the teens themselves and their families and friends – as well as the response of the islanders as a whole. Nantucket isn’t just a summertime playground for the rich and famous, the author points out; this story is about real people. Granted, they are mostly all attractive and tanned and successful, but as this story shows, that doesn’t make them immune to tragedy.

Here’s a excerpt taken from near the beginning of the book, where we get the first-person plural point of view of the year-round inhabitants of Nantucket, who take a special hometown pride in the standout talents of Penny and Hobson Alastair, twin children of the widowed Zoe, a beautiful and talented chef with a house on the water.

There was a bittersweet element to June 16, graduation day, and as we walked off the field at the end of the ceremony, some of us said we would never forget this one in particular, either because the weather had been so spectacular or because Patrick Loom’s speech had been so poignant.
It was true that we would always remember graduation that year, but not for these reasons. We would remember graduation that year because it was that night, the night of June 16, that Penelope Alastair was killed.
What? the world cried out in disbelief. The world wanted the Nantucket that resided in its imagination: the one with the icy gin and tonic resting on the porch railing, the sails billowing in the wind, the ripe tomatoes nestled in the back of the farm truck. The world did not want to picture a seventeen-year-old girl dead, but the world needed to know what we knew; Nantucket was a real place.
Where tragic things sometimes happened.

If you are a Penny Vincenzi fan, you should definitely try Elin Hilderbrand’s books (and vice versa). Also, if you like books by Jacquelyn Mitchard, Elizabeth Berg, Anita Shreve, Liane Moriarty, or other writers of “women’s fiction” who tell a good and heartbreaking story including sharp observations of the way people behave during a crisis, moments of humor throughout, difficult problems that get at least partially resolved (or “sorted” if you’re reading Penny Vincenzi), and a hopeful and uplifting ending.

Read a 2012 interview with Elin Hilderbrand at BermudaOnion’s Weblog.

Summerland
Hilderbrand, Elin
Little, Brown, 2012
9780316099837
388 pp.
$26.99 U.S./$29.99 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the public library.

Other (more timely) opinions on Summerland (all very good):
Beth Fish Reads
A Bookish Libraria
Under My Apple Tree

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Neighbors, Interrupted: When She Was Gone by Gwendolen Gross @GalleryBooks

cover image of When She Was GoneWhen She Was Gone by Gwendolen Gross is about a seventeen-year-old girl who goes missing just before she is about to go off to college. This is what happens in Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, but the author lightens up the story by letting the reader know early on that Linsey Hart had left a note before leaving her house very early that summer morning and that the note had gone missing. Everyone is worried about her disappearance, but readers know that at least she was safe when she left. As the story progresses from Day One onward, concern over the missing girl and her family grows among the neighbors and families in the suburban town, but also a heightened sense of drama and sympathy fatigue, as time passes.

Many people in Linsey’s town – her mother, her little brothers, her ex-boyfriend Timmy, her school friends, her neighbor, the woman she babysits for – know something about Linsey that not everyone knows. But no one knows where she is, whether she has been abducted, or why she would leave of her own accord when she was so close to leaving town anyway. Readers also don’t know any of these things.

The story moves around – settling briefly on one character, then moving to the next, beginning with Linsey’s next-door neighbor, the solitary and eccentric piano teacher, Mr. Leonard. Reading, we gather bits of evidence from each, piecing together an outline of what happened from what each person has seen or knows. The chapter headings list neighborhood addresses (24 Sycamore St., 26 Sycamore St., etc.) cluing readers in that the focus is shifting from one character to another. Linsey’s family has already been broken and put back together after a tragedy several years ago; Linsey and her mother are both still fragile. Several neighbors have secrets they would prefer not to have revealed to their neighbors in the course of a police investigation. It quickly becomes clear how little we really know even when we observe something. Also, how little we really know about even our closest neighbors.

This is a quiet story, not a shocking one or a suspenseful one. If you go into it looking for something like The Lovely Bones or Gone Girl, you’re going to be disappointed. When She Was Gone is more of a psychological novel. It doesn’t go deep into the family’s emotional reservoir the way Songs for the Missing does, but stays closer to the factual surface of the story, reporting characters’ thoughts, allowing readers to read between the lines, and getting down to the nub of dissatisfaction at the heart of suburban life.

When She Was Gone is the author’s fifth novel. The multiple points of view and writing style reminded me in some ways of Kate Morgenroth. The author’s writing style may have also seemed familiar to me because I’ve read The Other Mother by her, which came out in 2007. The characters in When She Was Gone are well drawn and memorable; I enjoyed reading this study of a suburban town in subdued crisis mode.

Here’s an excerpt from the end of the first chapter of When She Was Gone:

Later, when they came to question him, Mr. Leonard would try to be faithful to the morning. He remembered the note, but assumed they already knew. He remembered a lot of things, but only answered their questions. By then, the word “vanished” had wafted into his windows like the stray spittle that worked its way from rain through the screens. But vanished, Mr. Leonard thought, was a relative term. Linsey knew where she was, he thought, Linsey knew what she was seeing and hearing, what tastes touched her tongue.
He’d seen her seeing him. It wasn’t as if he could help himself – it wasn’t as if he was really living in his body – sometimes at the piano, sometimes inside the music. Mr. Leonard knew something about Linsey, something secret. But then, he had secrets of his own; he understood, and he wasn’t telling.

When She Was Gone
Gross, Gwendolen
Gallery Books
March 2013
978-1-4516-8474-2
275 pp.
$16.00 US/$18.99 CAN

Disclosure: I won this book in a giveaway from My Book Views.

Other (more timely) opinions on When She Was Gone (mixed):
Jenn’s Bookshelves
Lit and Life

Novel Escapes

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