Lydia Millet is a writer who defies classification. She writes YA novels, animal-human relationship short stories, tightly-structured literary novels, and laugh-out-loud comedies. She’s a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Really, she’s a writer who does it all. From other writers, Mermaids in Paradise, a novel which, ironically, satires the need for classification, might be viewed as an odd creation, but for Millet, it seems like a necessary addition to her catalogue.
The plot of Mermaids in Paradise is spectacularly odd. Chip and Deb are getting married, and they need a honeymoon destination. They could go to Middle American, a place where Chip very much wants to visit because of all of the potential conversations. Deb describes Chip: “Wherever there are people, Chip will talk to them.” Or they could go somewhere that doesn’t have any people, which would be Deb’s ideal spot. Deb says of herself, “It’s not that I don’t like people overall; I just like to personally select the ones I spend time with. I favor screening techniques that don’t involve random proximity.” After debating, the pair (for some reason) decides that a Caribbean Island resort is the best of both worlds. It’s a choice that certainly seems perplexing, especially when considering the two personalities at hand.
Once the newlyweds set their feet on the island, things get really complicated. Chip chats it up with everyone in his nearby vicinity, and he’s genuinely nice—again, to everyone. Deb, who is the queen of snark, judges everything around her and basically sits in a bubble of perpetual eye-rolling. She’s great. I mean it, too. The voice Millet captures in Deb is unlike any other voice from 2014’s literary releases. She’s self-obsessed, but she’s sincere in being like she is. Deb refuses to break until her world requires it, and it soon does.
Chip and Deb get roped into an excursion that is being led by a scientist. Although Deb’s eyes can barely stop rolling enough for her to walk, she follows her new husband. When they get to their location, they throw on some scuba gear and dive into the deep blue. What do they see? Mermaids! Well, maybe they see mermaids (or “mers”)—at least Chip thinks he sees them. No one is really sure.
After the mermaid sighting, Millet’s comedic novel transforms itself from a relationship story with magical realism elements into a straight up murder mystery. Yep, that’s right. There is a murder. Well, sort of. Chip and Deb figure out a plan to prove that mermaids exist, and they want to do so while still protecting the mysterious creatures. It’s here that Deb’s character undergoes the biggest transformation. She goes from being an ironic naysayer, who distances herself from anyone and everyone to becoming a woman who possesses a level of compassion and—wait for it—personal ethics.
Word gets out quickly about the “mers” sighting, and a slew of people, who, non-coincidentally, happen to represent just about every single human stereotype, rush to the resort. They argue, come together, argue again, and come together some more. Mermaids in Paradise ends in a fittingly bizarre way, but it does make perfect sense—and it’s good.
Although the fantastical setting and wild happenings might make you think of Mermaids in Paradiseas a lightweight kind of book, it is not. In fact, it’s the opposite. Millet’s novel is a multi-layered comedy that happens to be among the year’s most provocative works of fiction.
One of the more brilliant aspects of Mermaids in Paradise is the central relationship between Chip and Deb. Together, they symbolize so much of what makes the novel click. They are opposites, but they work together. They are representative of so many different things. They cannot function as one stereotype because they—and everyone else—are more than a label. They are unique, confused, and fully-formed people.
The concluding result of Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise is a piece of literature that proposes a number of questions about modern love, roles, and personal ethics. It’s funny, but it’s also deeply felt and important. Millet has crafted her most enjoyable work yet and, perhaps, her most important.
9 - OVERALL
9.0 TOTAL SCORE