BOOK REVIEW: Mermaids in the Basement 

Fluff for Smart Girls: You won’t feel guilty and you won’t feel disappointed by Mermaids

Mermaids in the Basement [Buy Now]
By Michael Lee West
Harper, 304 pages, $24

I’m a sucker for girly books.

I go for the pretty covers, the women writers — the more southern the better.

I’m not proud of this fact. I was an English major, after all, and I consider myself a pretty intelligent girl, which is why I’ll always try to throw in a couple of “smart books” on my trips to the local library.

These books almost always go unread, however, because when all I want to do is kick back and sink into a good book, I crave easy, entertaining fluff.

But sadly, it’s been awhile since I found a girly book that I really enjoyed. I’d start a book and quickly lose interest, bored with the characters, the tired plotlines, or the stereotypical dialogue.

Even fluffy books should have their standards. Which is why I was so thrilled to find Michael Lee West’s Mermaids in the Basement.

It’s the story of Renata DeChavannes, a woman whose world falls apart when her mother dies in a plane crash, and her screenwriter boyfriend is caught getting cozy with a skanky Hollywood starlet.

So she heads south to Alabama, back to her rich eccentric grandmother, her housekeeper, her distant father, his young fiancé, and a host of other colorful characters.

Over the next few weeks R uncovers secrets about her past that allow her to come to a greater understanding and appreciation of her family and herself. Moving stuff, really. Original? I’m pretty sure I’ve read the going-home-to-find-yourself book before.

So why does this book stand out? It’s just plain well-written for one thing, unlike so many books in this genre. The plot reveals itself in stories told by various characters from different time periods. The voices meld together easily, while the variation keeps things exciting and interesting.

You might have one story from the wise-yet-still-feisty grandmother, her horn-dog old friend (who’s known for slipping prescription drugs into hors d’ouevres at parties), Renata’s desperately-clinging-to-youth father, or even the potentially philandering Irish boyfriend.

The characters are believable and complex, the relationships between them rich, always growing richer as the story moves along. Renata herself manages to cling to her role as the main character, despite the many other perspectives in the story. She’s a smart, likeable character, easy to sympathize with, though she does have one major flaw: forgetfulness.

This chronic/selective amnesia helps the plotline quite a bit but is quite implausible. Renata remembers few defining events up through her teenage years, until the stories told by those around her help to jog her memories. Though a near-drowning incident is used to explain some forgetfulness in her early youth, it’s strange that that forgetfulness continues.

The things that happened in her life weren’t even that traumatic. Break-ups and divorce are normal, and that’s about the extent of the suffering young Renata went through. In the beginning of the book, she gets so hammered that she burns her precious manuscript, then sends a package of poop to the woman who supposedly stole her boyfriend.

Of course, she doesn’t remember any of this in the morning. Perhaps the author thought we’d miss out on all the great storytelling if the main character already knew what was up. I think the amnesia diminishes Renata’s credibility quite a bit.

I stayed up late to read this book. I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it, and when I finished it, I was both very happy (I’m a sucker for happy endings, too) and sad it was over.

It’s been awhile since I enjoyed a book like that. I’ll be the first to say that it wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but it certainly wasn’t fluff either.

Maybe when I check out West’s previous novels, I won’t feel the need to cover them up with Vonnegut.


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