Mermaids In Paradise

By Lydia Millet

(Norton, $25.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Lydia Millet knows her way around satire and the fraught relationship between humans and the natural world, an ongoing theme in her writing. She has published nine novels, a story collection and books for younger readers. She’s been a finalist for National Book Critics Circle, Los Angeles Times and Pulitzer Prize awards for fiction, and her  novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. Born in Boston, educated at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holder of a master’s degree from Duke University in environmental science, she now lives in Arizona with her children.

What is this book about?

There’s trouble in Paradise. Also, mermaids.

The story begins when a newlywed couple – Chip is a jock who loves outdoor adventures; Deb is a born skeptic who narrates the tale – arrive at their honeymoon destination, a resort on an island in the Caribbean. There they meet a marine biologist who claims she has seen mermaids frolicking around a nearby coral reef.

Here’s how Millet describes them: “Their hair floated in clouds behind them, long, weightless-looking swaths, like seaweed, as did their tails, which moved up and down slowly as the tails of dolphins move, not side to side like the tails of fish. These tails were graceful, beautiful muscles, scales shining silver in rows and rows of small coins.”

In no time, the company that owns the resort starts plans to exploit the heretofore mythological maids of the sea, and Deb and Chip, with help from an ex-Navy SEAL and a Japanese hipster, set out to stop those plans.

Why you’ll like it:

Millet can write very sharp satire and has a wonderfully whimsical imagination, but her writing also employs empathy and a real concern for the natural world that so many seem bent on exploiting. While, at first, this novel seems as though it could have sprung from the hard drives of such tropical wits as Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen, Millet displays her own very powerful style. Mermaids in Paradise is kind of a Free Willy for grown-ups, with plenty of laughs and a serious underpinning., a comic thriller that raises some very serious issues while it entertains. As Deb says: “. . . it had taken our ancestors four million years to figure out fire. It took them another five million years to develop writing. And then, in a great acceleration — just a brief, screaming handful of seasons — we got electricity, nukes, commercial air travel, trips to the moon. Overnight the white sands of the parrotfish were running out. Here went the poles, melting, and here, at last, went paradise.”

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “A Caribbean honeymoon turns into a media circus over a mermaid sighting in this laser-focused satire from Millet. Deborah, the narrator of Millet’s smart and funny novel, her ninth, is an LA woman who’s snarky to the core: She’s skeptical of her fiance’s hard-core workout regimen, of the rituals of bachelorette parties, even of her best friend’s own snark. So when her new husband, Chip, proposes a honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands, she’s suspicious of tourism’s virtues. Deb’s early interactions seem to justify her defensiveness: One man gets the wrong idea when she accidentally brushes her foot against his leg over drinks: “He made me feel like my toes were prostitutes,” she tells her husband. “Like my toes, Chip, were dolled up in Frederick’s of Hollywood.” The comic, unbelieving tone Millet gives Deb helps sell what happens next: Roped into a scuba dive by an aquatic researcher, she and a small group spot a bunch of mermaids at a nearby reef. Despite the group’s efforts to keep the discovery hidden, the resort gets the news and rushes to capitalize on it, while Deb and her cohorts are eager to preserve the sole example of unadulterated wonder the 21st century has offered them. The novel has the shape and pace of a thriller—Deb is held by corporate goons, the researcher goes mysteriously missing, paramilitary men are called in—and it thrives on Deb’s witty, wise narration. Millet means to criticize a rapacious culture that wants to simplify and categorize everything, from the resort profiteers to churchy types who see the mermaids as symbols of godlessness. The ending underscores the consequences of such blinkered mindsets without losing its essential comedy. An admirable example of a funny novel with a serious message that works swimmingly. Dive in.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “World-class worrier Deb is a quietly hilarious observer of and cautious participant in life, especially her life with new husband Chip, an über-friendly gamer addicted to extreme sports. When the couple settles on a tropical island for a honeymoon, Deb reluctantly agrees to a scuba-diving adventure arranged by Chip and Nancy, a parrotfish expert Chip meets. A sighting of real mermaids, Nancy’s wish to videotape them for scientific study, and the spiraling viral insanity of social media soon unleash all the hellhounds of today’s polarized society. When corporate powers using militarized thugs plan to “theme park” the mermaids, Deb, Chip, and Nancy rally a crew of defenders, including an ex-Navy SEAL and a brilliant, gorgeous Tokyo videojournalist. Throw in a possible murder and a kidnapping and thus is born a wonderfully comedic, poignant thriller that will have you believing in the existence of mermaids. VERDICT Deb’s endearing insecurity, unexamined courage, and unwavering love for her husband allow for a charming, albeit uncomfortable, examination of the power of skewed worldviews running off the rails, fueled by ignorance and fear, while smarter, cooler heads push back. Brilliant and wildly funny, with well-placed sharp jolts of sobering reality; Pulitzer Prize finalist Millet is pure genius.”

Says The New York Times Book Review – “It’s a bold move to make mermaids the center of a grown-up story, even in a novel as hilariously funny as this one. But Lydia Millet’s novels raise the bar for boldness. Through the window of the unlikeliest events or plot twists, she poses the questions many contemporary writers shy away from, or simply skirt…Millet’s writing—witty, colorful, sometimes poetic—is, line by line, a joy to read, and her storytelling is immensely compelling. But there’s always an equally compelling philosophical discussion humming beneath everything. In Mermaids in Paradise that discussion is about the different ways people see the world, and how perceptions form belief…In her most original way, Millet dares us to examine how we ever know when to be “hard core,” or when it’s safe to let down our guard. It’s a testament to her novel’s power that these mermaids retain their mystery, and that the ending of Mermaids in Paradise is one of the most luminous and unsettling in recent fiction.”

When is it available?

You can find Mermaids at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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