SO weird and SO wonderful!
‘American Mermaid’ is very funny, but there are deeper themes at play in this very unique book-within-a-book about making the original book into a movie. The author skewers Hollywood in the best possible way, and how clever is she to have basically written two books here? So much to unpack!
Penelope is a former underpaid high school teacher who has written a blockbuster sci-fi bestseller about a mermaid named Sylvia. (“All those early mornings and then finishing grading and class prep pretty late and feeling a bit resentful for doing lawyer hours for babysitter money.”)
Her book went viral when an influencer named Stem Hollander Instagrammed a photo of the book on his “reclaimed marble nightstand”. Penelope soon quickly relocates to Hollywood where she is teamed with two screenwriters who remind her at every turn that even though she was the author, she sold her rights away and doesn’t have much say in the final script.
Sylvia, the mermaid of Penelope’s novel, was found and adopted as an infant by two wealthy scientists who were unable to have children. Sadly they order a frightening medical procedure for baby Sylvia to try and make her more human, but which results in Sylvia being in constant pain and confined to a wheelchair. This will lead to catastrophic consequences later in the story.
The book alternates between Sylvia’s story and Penelope’s very weird experiences in Hollywood.
Penelope’s exchanges with the two screenwriters are hilarious yet sad and it is obvious that the movie version of her book is going to lose any resemblance to the novel, and to Penelope’s intentions. Her Sylvia is strong, beautiful and ultimately very powerful, not some teen action hero.
“‘Fresh eyes’ are actually shriveled Craisins in the skull of a mummy in a wide Brioni tie in Burbank or Culver City, and they will turn to dust before reaching consensus with ten other Craisin-eyes about the story that once was yours.”
Mysterious events begin to occur – is it Sylvia’s influence reaching into real life or merely coincidence? No matter, Penelope is unexpectedly driven to protect her mermaid at all costs. By the end, the reader is left to wonder whether Penelope has “gone Hollywood” or actually molded into some version of the fictional mermaid. The Epilogue in this book is absolutely hilarious and I can’t wait to see what Julia Langbein creates next.
“But I told myself this: I freed a mermaid in a book, and now she’s freeing me.”
(I received a complimentary copy of this book from Doubleday Books through NetGalley. All opinions are my own.)
About the Book:
Broke English teacher Penelope Schleeman is as surprised as anyone when her feminist novel American Mermaid becomes a best-seller. Lured by the promise of a big payday, she quits teaching and moves to L.A. to turn the novel into an action flick with the help of some studio hacks. But as she’s pressured to change her main character from a fierce, androgynous eco-warrior to a teen sex object in a clamshell bra, strange things start to happen. Threats appear in the screenplay; siren calls lure Penelope’s co-writers into danger. Is Penelope losing her mind, or has her mermaid come to life, enacting revenge for Hollywood’s violations?
American Mermaid follows a young woman braving the casual slights and cruel calculations of a ruthless industry town, where she discovers a beating heart in her own fiction, a mermaid who will fight to move between worlds without giving up her voice. A hilarious story about deep things, American Mermaid asks how far we’ll go to protect the parts of ourselves that are not for sale.