Book Review: Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

Newlyweds Deb and Chip are enjoying their honeymoon at a Caribbean island resort.  Although Deb is opinionated and largely skeptical of basically everything, her happy-go-lucky husband helps counterbalance her cynicism.  When the two meet a marine biologist who claims to have seen actual mermaids at a nearby coral reef, the two embark on an adventure–and potential tragedy–they never saw coming.

Lydia Millet’s biting satire is a gem of a novel, and it’s also one that grew on me even after I finished it and continued to think about the characters and their plight.  Millet is known for her laser-focused satire, and it’s on full display here, with her wise, witty narrator Deb.  The novel packs a punch and manages to be both funny and thrilling as well as quite contemplative.

Deb’s narration is part of why the book works as well as it does.  Her comic, often disbelieving tone helps to set up the novel’s general premise as well as making the more unbelievable aspects much more palatable.  In fact, Deb’s cheerful snark is the perfect balance to the book’s fantastical reveal of mermaids, and it makes the plot stronger as a result.

Also noteworthy is the fact that while the novel is clearly satirical, it’s also a thriller of sorts.  The pacing is tight, and adventure and tension packs the novel’s second half.  The satire works in tandem with the book’s more thrilling moments, examining a culture that wants to simultaneously categorize and commodify everything.  The novel has sharp teeth, but it also has an earnestness to it: there’s an actual exploration of belief here, and there’s also an examination of irony and what it means in today’s society.

The novel’s ending is very likely to divide readers, but it fits with the book’s overall theme.  It’s one of the most unsettling conclusions to a book I’ve read in quite some time.  It’s also pitch-perfect and emotionally resonant.  This is a must-have book for library shelves.

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet. W.W. Norton & Company: 2014. Library copy.

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