Author: Carolyn Turgeon
Publisher: Broadway (US) / Headline (UK)
Publication date: March 2011
Paperback: 352 pages
While in hiding at a remote convent, a king’s daughter sees a magical being dragging a shipwrecked man to the shore. The creature is a mermaid princess – the youngest daughter of the Sea Queen – but she shares more with her human counterpart than her royal blood.
By saving a young man’s life, both women have sacrificed their hearts. In one moment, the lives of the princesses, mortal and mermaid, are transformed forever.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Review copy from the UK publisher.
Why did we read this book: We love fairytale retellings and this one promised a “new twist” to the old tale.
Ana: My relationship with the tale of The Little Mermaid is a complicated one. I was introduced to the story by the Disney movie when I was a green girl of 13 and it remained my favourite Disney movie for years (until Mulan came along). It wasn’t until years and years later that I learnt how it ended in the original story by Hans Christian Andersen and was devastated (not to mention slightly put-off about all the self-sacrificing for a man). When I heard about Mermaid, I thought it would be great to read a modern-day retelling of the tale and was super excited about it. Unfortunately, the far-too-close-to-the-original “reworking”, the lacklustre writing, the flat dialogue, the cardboard characters made this an entirely unsatisfactory read.
Thea: Like most children born in the 80s, I also have a close relationship with The Little Mermaid – of course I loved the Disney film, the songs, the romance, the whole shebang (although unlike Ana, my favorite Disney Princess movie was and remains Beauty and the Beast – I mean come on, Belle’s a bookworm brunette!). I vaguely recalled the actual Hans Christian Anderson Danish fairy tale as being much grimmer (particularly in that the mermaid meets a tragic end and that a knife was somehow involved), so I was eager to read this retelling that promised a new twist, and a darker edge to its Disney counterpart. Well…I honestly don’t know how to feel about Mermaid. On the one hand, I do appreciate how bittersweet it is, particularly with regard to the two female protagonists. On the other, I am incredibly turned off by the soul-melding message of the book, in all its chokingly restrictive, traditional and conservative glory. Also, after going back and familiarizing myself with the original fable, I was disturbed with how much of Mermaid is basically the original story. Verbatim. In fact, the only things about this story that work for me are the things that were lifted from the original – namely the tragedy, how it actually isn’t a romance (at least, not in my mind), and the dark nature of the story. But, like Ana points out….none of these things are actually the author’s. And that does not bode well.
On the Plot:
Lenia, the daughter of the sea King is a mermaid who dreams and wonders about the human world but more specifically about the human soul. When a mermaid turns a certain age (18 in this book, 15 in the original), they are allowed to go above water and Lenia has been waiting for her turn anxiously. When her 18th birthday comes, she witness a ship wreck and ends up rescuing a young man whom she falls in love with at first sight. She takes him to the shore, where he is tended back to health at a convent by another young woman who turns out to be princess Margrethe from the Northern Kingdom who had been sent to the convent for protection. She also falls in love with him and when the man turns out to be Prince Christopher, heir from the rival Kingdom and Margrethe decides it would be to both kingdoms’ interest to unite in peace and in marriage. Meanwhile, the Mermaid pursues her love for the prince and sacrifices her voice and her legs to become human. The catch is: the prince has to marry her so that she can earn the soul she so covets.
Mermaid follows the original tale almost to the letter and it only diverges slightly by adding the point of view of Margrethe and changing the ending. In all honesty those made little to no difference to the story, as adding Margrethe’s point of view did not really add anything new to the story itself and the reworking of the ending only served to reinforce the problematic aspects of the novel namely: Lenia’s want of a soul which in the story can ONLY be granted via marrying a man; the willingness of these two women to sacrifice everything and suffer for Christopher. The first add some weird spiritual tones to the novel with the talk about souls and heaven and the second is completely staggering because Christopher has no personality whatsoever.
In all fairness the two problematic aspects aforementioned ARE present in the original tale which brings to my point: it is my understanding (and expectation) that a retelling is an adaptation of a story. That it will take the original and depart from it somehow. Mermaid is so close to the original, I kept asking myself what was the point of the retelling? Why not explore and take further the idea that mermaids have no soul for example? Why not develop a love story beyond the insta-love?
To complicate matters further, the writing is not really that good. I think I might be ok with a retelling that didn’t add anything new to the original if at least the writing was stellar. But in this case there is more telling than showing and the dialogue is stilted and lifeless:
He nodded. ‘Yes, I can arrange that without too much trouble. What will be trickier is getting you there safely.’
‘I will be fine,’ she said, with a bit of false bravado, spurred by her excitement. ‘I can ride a horse and wear a disguise as well as anyone.’
He laughed. ‘You are so young, and so confident.’ And she detected a hint of nostalgia, even jealousy in his voice. ‘I remember having that kind of confidence when I was a young man.’
‘Maybe this will give you a reason to be confident again, Gregor,’ she said.
‘I hope so, dear girl,’ he said.
Sadly, what it comes down to is that this one did not work for me at all.
Thea: I share a lot of Ana’s concerns, although I’m going to view them through a slightly different lens. I actually loved the fact that Mermaid is not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. I loved that it is a story about two female characters – both beautiful, strong and daring in their own ways – and that because of the society that they are a part of, they are throwing themselves at a decidedly unworthy prince. Let’s be frank and call a spade a douchebag – that is, Prince Christopher is a huge douche. This is to be expected though, because princes and kings, especially in this sort of society, were entitled to sleep with whomever they choose. I liked that Mermaid stuck with the harsher, uglier side of reality in that respect. I also loved how tragic the story is, because these two women who both believe themselves to be so in looooove with their prince charming effectively play rival to each other because of a twist of fate and a misunderstanding. I liked the brutality of the magic and ultimately how fatalistic the story is.
But…like Ana says, these things that I liked? They were all taken, play by play, from the original fairy tale. Which does pose the question – what is the purpose of this retelling? I suppose one answer to that would be to familiarize readers with the forgotten fable, which is a perfectly legitimate reason, except for the fact that this “retelling” adds nothing to the value of the original. The writing is, unfortunately, stilted (as Ana’s example above shows) and at best mediocre. Furthermore, the only places where Ms. Turgeon deviates from the original tale are to the detriment of the book, in my opinion. The heavy focus on the “immortal soul” and the implications of marriage being the only force that can unite the soul (because as opposed to falling in love, it is the institution of marriage that determines the melding of one’s immortal soul with another’s – because we ALL know that only people that are madly and truly in love get married, right?) were unintentionally hilarious. This is, of course, just my personal opinion. I’m always uncomfortable when things get ultra-religious in my fiction, and to me, if the author was going to change anything about the original story, it would have been this. Or like Ana says, why not explore the concept of mermaids not being born with souls (which is really weird, since apparently they are of the same origin as humans…). There were also quite a few loose ends – what of the prophecy of Margrethe’s child? Or what exactly was the purpose of being “marked” by a mermaid’s touch? Argh. Frustrating. Also, I should mention there are some wonderfully awkward sex/masturbation scenes. And nipples. Yup. You read that correctly (and anyone that knows me knows how maturity goes out the window when someone mentions nipples). Also little witty dialogue exchanges like this (in which Lenia is naked and found by two palace guards)…
“I’d love to have been at whatever party she was at last night,” the other one said, more coarsely. his eyes swept up her legs, over her center, her torso. “My God, I’ve never seen a woman more beautiful.”
…tend to tip the unintentional hilarity scale.
On the Characters:
Ana: I am just going to keep it simple and short: I don’t really have a lot to say about the characters because they lack depth or development (other than the text TELLING me that they are doing or feeling such and such). The addition of Margrethe’s point of view could have been an added bonus if she didn’t sound just like Lenia even with such different backgrounds (and seriously the amount of tears these two girls cry is enough to fill an ocean). Christopher, as I said, has no personality beyond being there and being handsome and I couldn’t understand at all the women’s love and therefore feel no sympathy for their suffering and dedication.
Thea: I do agree that the characters are a little undercooked, but I don’t think it’s a characterization issue more than it’s a writing issue. As Ana and I have said above, the writing is a bit stilted and focused more on the telling than the showing. With that in mind, I actually appreciated what characterization I got from Mermaid – both Lenia and Margrethe are bound by the constraints of their worlds and the rules that govern their station. As a mermaid, Lenia longs for the surface and is, in fact, the last mermaid that attempts to become a human. Margrethe struggles with her father’s love of of war, her missing mother, and her own role in the future of her kingdom. When these two women find their paths tangled by the fates, they cope in the only way they know how – Lenia thinks herself in love with the prince, and Margrethe believes that the magic of seeing Lenia rescue the prince was a sign from God to have magic in her own life. Like I said before, I love this tragedy of miscommunication, and I actually think that each character’s motivations are believable and well-founded. I can’t exactly assign a modern sensibility on these very different fictional creatures.
I CAN pass judgment, however, on the thematic problems with the book, on the writing style, and on the lacking plot points where Mermaid deviates from the original fairy tale.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: This is going to sound harsh and you can probably guess it by now but I can’t find a single reason to recommend Mermaid. I would simply stick to the original or even the Disney retelling.
Thea: I am kind of at a loss in trying to assign a verdict or rating to this book. There were things that I liked about the book – but all of these elements were done (and done better) in the original fairy tale. With that in mind, I can’t recommend Mermaid (but I can recommend that people read the original). I don’t think this was a terrible book, but I think it’s worth noting that in my opinion, the parts of the book where Ms. Turgeon deviated from or expounded on the original were among the weakest parts of the novel. That should tell you something.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the first chapter:
It was a gloomy, overcast day, like all days were, when the princess first saw them. The two of them, who would change her life. There was nothing to herald their appearance, no collection of birds or arrangement of tea leaves to mark their arrival. If anything, the convent was more quiet than usual. The nuns had just finished the midmorning service and scattered to their cells for private prayer. The abbess was shut in her chamber.
Only the princess was out in the garden, wandering along the stone wall that overlooked the sea. Here, near the old well, the wall dipped down to her knees, and an ancient gate led to a stairway that curved to the rocky beach below. She was bundled in furs, wincing against the blast of wind that swept up from the sea and made the bare trees rattle around her.
She was not supposed to be out here. She should have been in her cell, too, but she did not follow the rules the way the others did, and the abbess had instructed them to give her wide berth. No one knew why, only that she ’d arrived one night on horseback accompanied by three armed guards, who carried in a large chest, placed it in a private double cell in the novices’ wing, and disappeared as quietly as they’d come.
No one but the abbess herself knew that she was the Northern king’s daughter, that she was in hiding after secret reports that the South would be renewing its attacks. The others knew her simply by the name Mira, which was short for her given name, Margrethe. Most assumed she suffered some kind of ailment or melancholy, and the less committed novices had spent hours over the last months trying to guess which one. A few days after Margrethe’s arrival, another new tenant had appeared: a bright, flame- haired girl named Edele, who became fast friends with Margrethe, almost as if they’d known each other for years.
Margrethe had never wanted to come to this desolate outpost, was not used to the barren loneliness of this part of the world. She missed the castle, the long dinners lit by fire and dancing, the sleigh rides, her childhood room with its little fireplace in which pinecones burned, the mantel lined with books. She especially missed those—her books, and the long hours she had spent with her father’s adviser and old tutor, Gregor, poring over them, learning of ancient battles and loves and philosophies. But the kingdom was under threat, and this was the safest place for her, her father had said, here at the edge of the world, in the convent that her late grandmother had helped found and that her mother had been schooled in as a girl.
She thought of her mother now, as she stared out at this desolate sea. It had been two years since the queen’s death, but sometimes it felt as fresh as a new wound. Margrethe pulled her furs close and stood stark against the wind, breathing in the thick air, which coated her tongue in salt. She wondered how her mother had felt staring out at this same sea. Was it like this back then? The ocean dark, wild? It seemed, to Margrethe, the color of grief.
Before coming here she had never seen the sea like this, as a living thing. Some trees had been uprooted by a recent storm, and they reached toward the water like gnarled fingers. She strained against the wind, hoping to catch sight of a Viking ship, a square flag, a dragon prow, but she was at the end of the world now, at the most northern point in the kingdom, and no ships came here.
How was she to know that this would be the most singular moment of her life? How can any of us tell when that thing comes that will make everything different? It seemed, to Margrethe, a moment like any other: waiting to return to her father’s castle, looking over the gloomy sea, waiting for private prayer to be over and the convent workday to start. Strangely, she found herself looking forward to the hours she ’d spend weaving that afternoon, listening to the clacking of the looms, the hum of the spinning wheels nearby, the voice of one of the sisters reading scripture moving over them. At first she ’d hated the dull hours of work, but lately she’d found a certain comfort in them. She could forget everything, watching the wool transform in front of her.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Ana: 2 – Complete Waste of Time
Thea: Somewhere between a 4 and a 5. I have no idea how to rate this book.
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