When I originally read the description for this book, I wasn’t sure it was for me. When it started making the rounds on bookstagram, I still wasn’t totally interested in it. But over time, I started to get intrigued by the love/hate reactions I was seeing in reviews. I am a sucker for a controversial novel. And, to be honest, I was really sold on adding it to my TBR after read My Year of Rest and Relaxation earlier this year. That was another recent release that had garnered a lot of love/hate reactions…of which I fell towards the love side of. Basically, all that added up to my curiosity getting the better of me and I decided it was worth giving this one a shot.
“To want what you had – now, that was an art, a gift maybe.”
Lucy has been in Phoenix for nine years, working on her dissertation (on Sappho). But after a break-up with her boyfriend, she hits an emotional rock bottom and decides to accept her sister’s offer to come to LA and house/dog-sit for the summer. While there, Lucy starts attending a love-addiction therapy group, having incredibly risky sexual interactions with men she finds online, and continues to flounder in writing her dissertation. When she sees, and ends up mildly obsessed with, an attractive swimmer on the beach, everything changes. Because he’s not a normal nighttime swimmer…he’s a merman. And their relationship, and Lucy’s understanding of love, gets even more complicated and messy.
Quite frankly, the adjectives that come to mind first, in attempting to describe this book, are as follows: vulgar, bizarre, cerebral, experimental and, in many ways that I may not actually ever be able legitimately articulate, fascinatingly grotesque (in an artsy way). Although my original mental comparison to My Year of Rest and Relaxation was, actually, quite accurate in a variety of ways (primarily in the narrative voice/tone), I also got vibes that reminded me of The Argonauts (with the juxtaposition of raw language and deeply philosophical explorations). And then, truly, a whole lot of the reading experience was completely unique to anything I’ve ever had before. I’ve just finished and am still working to fully process my feelings and reactions, so I may present the collection of thoughts in this review in list form…
- I loved how tangible Lucy was as a character. I “felt” her from the very first page. For all her (many) faults, and at times very harmful choices, annoying inner monologues and whininess, she was so very vibrant and alive. She’s a wonderfully fully developed and written character.
- There was a deeply philosophical bent to the writing in this novel. I am not really a person that enjoys reading that kind of intellectual exploration at great length (i.e. in full length novel form), but for some reason, the introspection/questioning here felt accessible and digestible. I can’t necessarily pinpoint why, but I was engaged with it throughout the book, instead of it distancing me from the plot/characters like it has in the past. (As evidence of this, please note the number of quotes/passages that I’ve pulled at the end of this review – so many things struck me while I was reading.)
- Again, I want to point out the contrasting writing styles: crude and finessed language about love and sex flowed together so smoothly throughout the book. It takes a lot of skill as a writer to make something like that work and be jarring, but not gratuitous (thus, pulling the reader out of the space created by the novel).
- Broder presented such an insightful and no punches pulled look at the differences between expectation and reality in love, relationships, sex, etc. It’s direct and impactful.
- I have yet to decide, in any concrete way, whether I think Theo (the merman) was a real “person” or simply a manifestation of Lucy’s internal conflict/need that her mind created. I feel like it could go either way and I flip-flop back and forth every few minutes. I think I like that I’m left with that uncertainty!
- I did not like the entire storyline (and especially the ending) with her sister’s dog, Dominic. It’s horrible. And also seems like the most real thing that happens in the story…which is strange considering how many other very real issues (specifically regarding mental health, addiction and suicide) are not only part of the novel but are prominent plot and discussion points. I think perhaps it was because, of all the characters in Lucy’s life during this period, the dog was the most truly present?
- The “chorus” of women from Lucy’s therapy group were a fascinating collection of voices. Their stories bordered on the satirical, yet I read them as literal within the context of the greater story. I did like the way they were used as a device, and kind of pulled back in Lucy’s work on her dissertation, the parts where Sappho was discussed, and the general style of ancient Greek written art.
- There were definitely some parts of Lucy’s feelings of “nothingness,” general ennui/malaise/feeling lost, that I think most readers would be able to identify with at least part of. It’s a great articulation of a very particular, and difficult to capture, type of feeling. I’m very impressed with that aspect.
- Altogether, the parts about Sappho and Lucy’s explanations of her dissertation were my least favorite parts and I can’t lie, I think most of that theory went over my head. Thankfully it was a more minor section of the book.
I think, similar to my feelings on My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I’m going to end up coming down on the “love” side of the love/hate debate here. I enjoyed my experience reading this book. I liked a lot of the shocking straightforwardness of the “erotic” sections and I feel like it will be one I’ll continue to think about long after finishing (which is generally a marker I use to note a “good” read). However, I do see why the haters hated. There is a lot of unhealthy relationship obsession and dependency that, while it makes for a compelling read, is something that I wouldn’t wish for any woman, anywhere, to experience in reality. Some parts were very uncomfortable to read, for various reasons. And, as I mentioned, dealing with the really unlikable narrator is something that will come down to personal preference. Overall, this is one I would recommend, I think, only to very individual/certain readers – those willing to read something disturbing and be able to simultaneously appreciate the presentation, find the dark humor, and see beyond/inside it (and no, I don’t totally know what I mean by that either…).
“There are good and bad ways of vanishing.”
“I looked out at the ocean. It was as though I hadn’t noticed it before, or hadn’t wanted to see it. I was scared of its wild ambivalence, so powerful and amorphous, like the depression itself. It didn’t give a fuck about me. It could eat me without even knowing.
But now I saw each of the waves individually, one after the other, and felt them to be in rhythm with ym heartbeat. They glimmered and splashed in the moonlight. Maybe the ocean was cheering for me after all? Maybe we were on the same side, comprised of the same things, water mostly, also mystery. The ocean swallowed things up – boats, people – but it didn’t look outside itself for fulfillment. It could take whatever skimmed its surface or it could leave it. In its depths already lived a whole world of who-knows-what. It was self-sustaining. I should be like that. It made me wonder what was inside of me.”
“The hunger in me suddenly felt bottomless. It scared me a little.”
“No one really wanted satiety. It was the prospect of satiety – the excitement around the notion that we could ever be satisfied – that kept us going. But if you were ever actually satisfied it wouldn’t be satisfaction. You would just get hungry for something else. The only way to maybe have satisfaction would be to accept the nothingness and not try to put anyone else in it.”
“Did it take a mythological deformity to find a gorgeous man who was as needy as I was?”
“…so much of what our lovers do and say is imagined. We turn them into who we want them to be. We fill in their bodies and words for them.”
“That he wanted to protect me felt good. I didn’t want to be the weak woman, but really it had nothing to do with femininity or masculinity anyway. Simply as a human being, I liked that someone else was worried about me…”
“Falling in love with a Siren meant certain death, but perhaps this was the greatest love: to die in feeling.”
“Why were some sadnesses so much more permissible than others?”
“And every time, when what I thought was him would turn out to be only seafoam, or the wind blowing on the water, I wondered how much of everything I had seen or thought I’d seen in my lifetime had been only illusion like that.”
“‘Eventually you have to choose,’ he said. ‘That’s how the story has always been and that’s the way it will be forever.’”