Jenny Lipkin is an average, stretched-too-thin Brooklyn mom, tackling the challenges of raising two children in a cramped Park Slope walk-up and bonding with other moms about breast-feeding while spending endless hours in Prospect Park. All she really wants is to survive the sweltering New York summer with a shred of sanity intact. But when her husband, Harry, a compulsive gambler, vanishes one evening without a word, Jenny finally reaches her breaking point. And in a moment of despair, a split second decision changes her life forever. Pulled from the brink by an unexpected (and, as it turns out, sometimes annoying) supernatural ally, Jenny is forced to rethink her ideas about success, motherhood, romance, and relationships. Confronting her inner demons—of both the mermaid and non-mermaid variety—is no easy task, and eventually Jenny has to come to terms with who she truly is, for better or worse.
~~from The Mermaid of Brooklyn reading guide
I loved this book, even though it drove me nuts sometimes.
Shearn perfectly captures the endless doldrums of parenthood: those days when a mother can be stretched to the breaking point by the self-perpetuating demands of society and by the episodic little terrorists of our her creation. How a mother can completely loose herself as her mind withers and she can’t even pick up Cheerios from the floor or comprehend how they keep ending up there. How she can love her kids, yet sometimes be afraid of who they may be.
Everything in the story happened to Jenny. She let herself fall into this pit of despair, in a way not taking any responsibility for how she fell into this pit (and later “fell” off the Brooklyn Bridge). Her husband, who isn’t the greatest guy, goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back— and she’s kind of okay with that. She’s depressed and/or struggling with postpartum depression, but even after contemplating suicide, she won’t go back on her meds. Perhaps she’s just weak or overwrought.
Jenny snaps, and in a moment of darkness, dies. Or she thinks she dies. She slips off the Brooklyn Bridge only to be brought back from the depths of the with the soul of a rusalka (a menacing mermaid from Slavic lore) who strives to live vicariously through Jenny. She returns to her hum-drum yet precarious life refreshed and ready to regain control of her two undisciplined young daughters, sew magical reproduction dresses, and aim her pent-up sex drive at the neighborhood stay-at-home dad.
At times, I wasn’t sure if Jenny was possessed by a supernatural being or if she was bipolar. The mermaid who supposedly roamed the East River (excuse me—ruskala —one of the “the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be”) acted as the polar opposite of Jenny, so she may have been an easy out for Jenny to release her impulses. Or she could have been a fairy tale creature. I’m still not sure. And I don’t know if it matters to the plot. The story is painted as “magical” so I guess we’ll go with the modern fable twist.
All of Jenny’s issues bring me back to the issue of likable characters, a point that has been driving me crazy in my own writing lately. Sometimes I wanted to hug Jenny, help her get through the day. Sometimes I simply wanted to smack some sense into her. When Jenny’s apartment grew to call-child-services messy (just clean up the spilled milk already!), I wanted to calmly explain how it IS possible to shower with kids. But she touches on ideas that modern moms think but don’t dare say—“I hated that I felt like I had to be unhappy in order for it to count as important.” Yes. We never utter this aloud, but stress,contentment, and importance form a sticky web many moms can’t untangle.
I don’t believe we need a character to be our best friend for us to find her story compelling and readable. A real character is not necessarily always nice, even in Women’s Fiction. I empathized with her as if she was a friend or relative who I still liked, though I may not approve of her choices. And I wanted to discover where those iffy choices would lead.
Which makes it a good story.
Shearn’s writing is insightful, sharp, and sometimes wickedly funny. Though the Park Slope stay-at-home-mom is a slightly different breed from my own suburban Florida variety (and she skewers us weak suburbanites often), she nailed the frantic ennui. Jenny, and the story, possess a depth and cleverness that sometimes borders on literary without being pretentious.
You may want to hug Jenny, you may want to toss her off a bridge, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. Whether you’ve enjoyed or endured the traumas of this generation’s touchy-feely-parenting, this story will resonate with modern moms. The Readers Guide at the end is excellent—The Mermaid of Brooklyn would make a fabulous selection for some feisty book club discussions.
The Mermaid of Brooklyn
by Amy Shearn
Touchstone, April 3, 2013
“For a woman in my state, a free afternoon was a dangerous proposition.”