If I was planning on having children anytime in the near future (disclaimer: I am not), Amy Shearn’s The Mermaid of Brooklyn would make me seriously rethink that decision. And, actually, is making me reconsider having children ever.
The story’s main character, Jenny Lipkin, is one of those Park Slope stereotypes that most of New York City usually speaks of with disdain. (That’s my characterization, because that is how it is in real life.) She was a successful magazine editor who just decided to give up her career to have kids and stay home and raise them. Thus she becomes part of the Park Slope Bubble, spending days within a 5 block radius of home, where neighborhood politics gain a little too much importance—it’s almost like high school again, stuck in this small insular community where the smallest gossip inevitably gets blown out of proportion because there is nothing better to do and this small world becomes your ENTIRE LIFE and you think everything else in the neighborhood, in the CITY, revolves around you.
Ok, so now do you understand the type of world Jenny’s living in?
On top of that, her husband went out for cigarettes one night and just never came back. So now Jenny’s stuck with two small children, her only support system being in-laws that she’s never felt completely welcome around and her best mom-friend in the neighborhood. Jenny also appears to have a history with post-partum depression, though it’s never overtly identified or explored. When Jenny’s driven to the edge, she does the unthinkable and jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Except she survives. And when floating there under the waters of the East River (gross), her body becomes inhabited by a mermaid that brings her back to life, puts her on a train back to Park Slope, and helps Jenny put her life back together. But this mermaid bit isn’t really the main point of the story—don’t worry, it’s not that much fantasy. It’s more about the situation Jenny is faced with and how she copes.
This was an odd book for someone my age and in my situation. I live in NYC and can understand Jenny’s feeling of isolation 100%. I loved how she observed her own community with such a grain of salt, understanding “this place is ridiculous, but somehow I became a part of it and now it is my life.” What I can’t relate to, though, is the isolation that comes with having children. I’m sure it’s one of those things you don’t understand until you experience it, but Jenny frustrated me often because she was just so whiny, woe is me, no one understands my pain, self-absorbed. She focused on surviving but in the most noxious way possible, with a mentality of “I don’t deserve this” rather than “I can get through this.” For that, I failed to garner too much sympathy for her.
The pacing of this is slow as you become absorbed in Jenny’s small little world. And as you read, you’re left questioning the validity of much of the story. Did things happen? Is this all metaphorical? Does it even matter? Shearn has chosen an interesting way to tell a story that will connect with many readers—many mothers—who have probably felt very close to the edge one time or another. And so because I haven’t felt that, I’m not totally sure what to take away from the end, if anything. Maybe someone who has been there, done that would finish the last page and say, “YES.” But I was just sorta left with, “Okaaaaay….”
This would be a great book for a book club of ladies who can relate, because it has many discussion points. No issue is too obvious; they are presented subtly or somewhat hidden beneath layers. It would be a good one to explore with a group.
This post is a stop on The Mermaid of Brooklyn‘s TLC Book Tour! There will be many more fabulous bloggers posting their opinions in the next two weeks; the tour runs through May 3rd—visit the tour page to see the schedule and follow the discussion.