Today, we have the proud honor of being the official Book Blog Partner on Harper Teen’s 28 Days of Winter Escapes Tour! First, we give you our joint review of our participating title, The Girl with the Mermaid Hair by Delia Ephron. Then, we bring you an exclusive Q&A with the author and a chance to win a copy of the book (and an iTouch).
Author: Delia Ephron
Genre: YA / Contemporary
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: January 2010
Hardcover: 320 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand Alone (although one of the secondary characters was the protagonist of the author’s previous book, Frannie in Pieces).
Click. Sukie Jamieson takes a selfie after her tennis lesson. Click. She takes one before she has to give a presentation in class. Click. She takes one to be sure there’s nothing in her teeth after eating pizza at Clementi’s. And if she can’t take a selfie, she checks her reflection in windows, spoons, car chrome—anything available, really. So when her mother gives her an exquisite full-length mirror that once belonged to her grandmother, Sukie is thrilled. So thrilled that she doesn’t listen to her mother’s warning: “This mirror will be your best friend and worst enemy.” Because mirrors, as Sukie discovers, show not only the faraway truth but the truth close up. And finding out that close-up truth changes people. Often forever.
How did we get this book: Review Copies from the publisher
Why did we read this book: When we were contacted to be part of the Winter Escapes event hosted by Harper Teen, we were allocated this book and we couldn’t have been happier – it was a perfect fit.
Ana: I started to read The Girl with the Mermaid Hair and my first reaction after reading the first few pages was: this is quite possibly one the weirdest books I have ever read, this girl is barking bonkers and completely unlikable and what in the world is going on. A few pages more and all of that changed – the book was still weird, but a wonderful weird, the character still crazy but with reason and I couldn’t put the book down until I was done and I ended up loving it. It is, hands down one of the best contemporaries YA I have read and a fantastic story about a girl, for girls, about what is like to be a girl.
Thea: The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is a bizarre book, and completely out of the range of YA titles that I usually read.
And I absolutely, out-of-my-mind LOVED it.
My experience with the book was very similar to Ana’s – I started it and couldn’t make heads or tails of what the frak was going on. Sukie is, for lack of a better word, deranged. At first glance, she’s narcissistic and irritatingly bland – but she’s not, really. This is a beautiful, unexpected, heartbreaking work of staggering genius (yes, I just ripped off Dave Eggers, but THAT is how good this book is – heck, better than Eggers’ narcissistic memoir, in this reader’s opinion). Against all my cynicism and predisposition against this book, The Girl with the Mermaid Hair blew me away.
On the Plot:
Ana: Sukie Jamieson is perfect: with her perfect blonde hair (like a mermaid’s), her perfect skin and her beautiful body with strong muscles built over her perfectly honed Tennis skills. Living in a perfect, beautiful house, with a perfect family composed of a loving father and a slightly crazy mother, a cute younger brother and the family dog Señor who even has a place at the dining table (first warning signal: his place it is at the head of the table). Sukie is a top student, brags about a quarterback boyfriend, she is beautiful and everybody is jealous of her and she spends hours in self-adoration and constantly takes selfies – pictures of herself with her cell phone.
One day her mother gives her an antique mirror as a present with the warning: “This mirror will be your best friend and worst enemy.”
As Sukie becomes more and more enamored with herself little cracks appear in the mirror – and ironically in her life – it becomes clear to the reader that Sukie only believes herself and her life to perfect. The truth is something else altogether.
There is very little in the way of a plot in The Girl with the Mermaid Hair , as this is really a character-driven novel at its core. Nothing really momentous happen in the novel and the story is propelled by Sukie and Sukie alone, as little by little is like the curtain is suspended and she can SEE her life for what it is and so can the reader. The result is sometimes hilarious but often sad too. Sometimes I write: this is so and so’s book but it is not every time that I am completely overcome with the strange sensation that I had when I was reading this book. This is Sukie’s book: I couldn’t tell where the writer or the narrator was, it was like neither existed and all I could see was Sukie. I was inside her head at all times and it felt like it was just me and her. That is also dude to the writing technique – extreme “showing,” no “telling” whatsoever, with the author, having the utmost faith in the reader to “get” what she saying. And I really dig that.
Thea: I have to wholeheartedly agree with Ana in saying that this indeed is Sukie’s book, and it is all the more awesome because of how committed it is. There really isn’t much plot or action, but that doesn’t mean The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is slow or dull – quite the opposite, actually. Rather, this is a wholly immersive reading experience. I have to emphasize again what Ana has said before me; reading The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is an experience unlike any other. It’s not so much a “reading a book” experience as it is a, “Holy Crap, I’m actually seeing Sukie’s mind at work” experience. (But more on that in the next section)
Also, I must say that Ms. Ephron’s writing is just…awesome. Not only is it incredibly clever (for example, one particular passage has Sukie debating what text to send – “WHEN WE KNOW EACH OTHER BETTER” – and deletes her text, letter by letter before inadvertently sending simply, “WHEN”), but it’s also memorably strange. The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is a trip – we readers are only given Sukie’s word as truth, and it becomes painfully, excruciatingly clear that Sukie’s judgement is not completely sound. She talks about her new “boyfriend” that she met at the mall (popular quarterback of the local highschool, named Bobo), but it soon becomes very apparent that Sukie’s relationship – along with so many other things in her life – is a fantasy. A delusion.
And that’s what I loved the most about this book: how it completely messes with reader perceptions. I found myself thinking, Sukie is a gag-inducing Mary Sue! No wait, she’s a narcissistic snot! I hate Sukie! No wait, she’s completely insane! No wait, I LOVE Sukie! and so on and so forth. How often does a book come along that does this to you? Not often. And, as Ana says, I can totally dig that.
On the Characters:
Ana: As a reader who loves character-driven novels, this book was a perfect fit for me. And I was not expecting it. Yes, I started the book disliking her superficiality and her weirdness but ended up loving and rooting for her once I got to know her better. When the story begins, she is too good to be true – too perfect. The image she has of herself and of her parents for example is a complete illusion and it is as though she doesn’t see those illusions because she does – it her interpretation that is all warped. Because for example this sequence about her father:
Sukie loved to watch her dad operate. That’s what he called it. Once at Cones, when he’d offered to pay for a woman’s sprinkles (a woman they’d never met before), the woman said to Sukie, “Your father makes everything more fun, doesn’t he?” As soon as they’d left the store, she reported the compliment to her dad, and he whispered (so her mom and Mikey couldn’t hear), “I’m a real operator”. Clearly this was information he could entrust only to Sukie
To her, he is a winner. To me, it is clear what he is. Eventually, yes, this is one of the things she comes to realise, one of the realities she has to face. But there is so much more to it. All the pressure she suffers from her mother to be beautiful and perfect; her mother who has a facelift and gets rid of her nose – the nose that was a trait she shared with Sukie – what does that
The book deals a lot with image and in several levels as well:, in mirrors, in photography; public image, self-image, the image one has in the family life or at school. Sukie is carrying her cell phone at all times and yet it never rings, her quarterback fling is not really interested in her, she is truly and really lonely and alone. She hits rock bottom and has to resurface (which is a cool image because of the mermaid hair) and re-imagine herself and I loved that it was all done alone. There was no hot boyfriend to help. No parents to help. Nothing, nada. It was all Sukie (with a little help from her friends).
When the book closes, she is much more real character than she was in the beginning.
As for the other characters, the mother was a sad example of a mother, someone I pitied more than anything. As for the father, I absolutely loathed the individual – not because he was a sleaze ball but because he used Sukie in the war against his wife. You do not do that with your child. But then again, as my parents often said: parenthood does not come with a manual.
But hands down, best secondary character was Señor, the Dog. The fact that he was the one the family turned to, to ask for advice should give you an idea of how dysfunctional they were.
One final thought: one of Sukie’s main concerns is about being original (or not). Is about striving to being unique without having a clue how to. My heart nearly broke into a million pieces several times during this book – and it may sound as though it is all very angsty and sad but it is not, really.
Thea: Well, The Girl with the Mermaid Hair *is* angsty and sad. But ultimately it’s an uplifting, triumphant book, and that’s ALL because of its protagonist Sukie.
I’m something of a plot junkie, as you may or may not have realized over the past couple of years here. But when a character-study type of book is done well, I will never complain about a shortage of action or parallel storylines or whatever, and such is the beauty of this novel from Delia Ephron. As I said before, I had no idea how to interpret and categorize Sukie as a heroine. At first glance, she’s irritating and vain, admiring herself in her grandmother’s antique mirror, mind-numbingly preoccupied with her appearance (especially with her titled hair, and with what she perceives of as an imperfect nose), constantly snapping “selfies” (that is pictures of herself on her cell phone). I shudder at the thought of this sort of vapid heroine, and found myself agreeing with Sukie’s tennis coach when he remarked that she had a marshmallow for a brain.
Then Ms. Ephron works her magic. Sukie in fact isn’t a vain imbecile – she’s a very lonely, hollow young woman that perceives the world around her so differently than anyone else. She lives in her own fantasies. She takes “selfies” and is so preoccupied with her looks not because she is vain, but because she has nothing else. She throws herself into her school work and extracurricular activities, not because she enjoys any of it, but because she is trying to impress her father, to placate her mother, to be perfect for everyone else. Her perfection is not perfection at all; it is obsessive, and heartbreakingly tragic.
And HERE is what makes The Girl with the Mermaid Hair a damn near perfect book for me – in my opinion, it is a jarring look at gender roles and expectations. It is, as I told Ana in an email, the 21st century, teen female version of Catcher in the Rye. Before you tune out, let me explain – I abhor Holden Caufield with every fiber of my being. I have no patience for the embodiment of overprivileged, adolescent male malaise that Holden represented – but this is something that resonates with a lot of readers, in particular male readers. What I mean by comparing Catcher In the Rye to The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is simply this: Sukie is the female answer to Holden Caufield in the new century. Sukie is the embodiment of pressures put on young adults, especially females, in our own age. She’s the daughter of a very rich and handsome father, a beautiful mother, older sister to a loving younger brother. She’s a perfect student, amazingly smart, and breathtakingly beautiful. But she’s far from perfect. She’s friendless, she thinks she has no personality, and she’s ultimately…hollow. Sukie lives to please everyone else, to play by the rules, and to maintain her appearance. Ms. Ephron takes that beautiful, perfect reflection, and just as with the antique mirror in the novel, she distorts the image bit by bit, ultimately shattering the readers’ perception of Sukie with stark reality.
And, yeah, she shattered this reader’s heart too.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: A surprisingly moving, funny and sharp character-driven story which I absolutely adored. It is as of now, one of my favorite reads of the year.
Thea: The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is a rare gem of a book, and it completely took me by surprise. Almost against my will, I loved it. I agree once more with Ana – this is the first truly memorable new release I’ve read in 2010. In fact, it’s my favorite book published in 2010 so far. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
I am so unoriginal. Sukie recorded the dreaded feeling in her journal that night while senor snored next to her, taking up most of the bed.”Do you agree, Senor?”
Senor twitched, indicating that he was dreaming.
Unoriginal. She hoped it wasn’t true but despaired that it was.
She collected stuffed penguins. Was that unoriginal too? Was lining them up in a row on the windowsill a conventional way to display them? They all had names. She’d started with A, Anton, and worked her way down the alphabet to M, Marshmallow, a very small bird with a yellow bow. Sometimes she thought of them as friends, sometimes as audience. Tonight they sat in judgement. Over their furry black heads the moon was bright white, so low in the sky that it might roll off a rooftop, and perfectly round. A storybook moon, she thought. A wishing moon. She wondered if that thought was especially original; probably not. Could she fake being original, or was that something you couldn’t fool anyone about? I wish I knew what everyone thought of me, really, she wrote. No, I take that back.
You can also read the first 64 pages of The Girl with the Mermaid Hair using Harper Teen’s awesome Browse Inside feature, below:
Additional Thoughts: The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is today’s stop on Harper Teen’s 28 Days of Winter Escapes! For a chance to win The Girl with the Mermaid Hair and an iTouch, make sure to go to the official page for today and answer the daily poll!
And make sure to stick around, as later today we have an exclusive Q&A with Delia Ephron!
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Spider’s Bite by Jennifer Estep