“The Pisces” by Melissa Broder. New York: Hogarth/Crow, 2018. 288 pages, $25 (hardcover).
If ever there was a book outside my comfort zone, it was this one. The premise of it initially sounded like something I would greatly enjoy. Lucy is an academic working on her dissertation when she and her boyfriend flame out. It ends badly; Lucy tries to commit suicide (sort of); and from there she winds up going to her rich sister’s home for the summer to house and dog sit. She is required to go to therapy, which turns out to be an odd group of women striking out in love, and this does nothing to help. As she spirals, she meets a swimmer on the beach late one night, who turns out to be mythic and not a man. From here, she is supposed to learn what love is really like, and her life takes an odd turn. She falls in love with a merman and begins to question everything she knows while rewriting her dissertation. Lucy seems to be making a breakthrough.
But then things spiral again. This book was hard for me to read, and toward the middle I simply began skimming the pages. Certainly it was erotic, and there are constant sex scenes or women talking about sex. It also felt like the author was simply trying to shove as much uncomfortableness in your face as often as possible. While I applauded tackling tough issues like love, suicide and breakups, the book went too far over the edge and never seemed to stop.
While I love a good fantasy-mixed-up-with-reality tale, it was almost difficult to decide if the merman really existed or if Lucy was high half the time. Although some describe this as bold and dark, I thought the story was lost among the crass, crude language and a desire to be as offensive as possible. And no – don’t shake your finger and say “what a snowflake.” I admitted being out of my comfort zone, but often I fall in love with books I push myself to read. I’m still regretting the choice here.
Part of my issue with this book may be the fact that while dealing with difficult topics, they are often also just shoved to the side. One character commits suicide multiple times. Lucy simply thinks that some people are destined to be messed up in love, and determined to die – that maybe trying to kill oneself is simply a breath of fresh air. Knowing someone who struggles with depression, runs a therapy group and once tried to kill herself makes me unable to see this side of the story in anything but a negative light.
While the author shows there are many who grapple with a void or work through issues, it is often heavy-handed. The erotica is self-proclaimed in the description. I knew that going into the book and have read others. Here, it was difficult to deal with. The main character, Lucy, has one-night stands and random sex. I would generally argue that the erotica and sex scenes are also not well written – often it feels like the author used “shocking” words to see how many times they could fit in one novel. The romance also does not exist. The merman is using her, and they barely have actual conversations, and the men she sleeps with are anything but romantic. No one else manages this in the entire story either.
Lucy is so unlikeable there is an urge to keep from reading the book at all. Any real development to the main character happens within maybe the last three pages and, even then, it is questionable. None of the side characters really change at all either. Lucy either hates them or only wants to talk to them to understand herself or work out her own selfish issues.
The ending makes everything generally worse. Although Lucy finally, maybe, makes one good choice in the end, she does not own up to any of her mistakes or admit to her faults. Not only that, she brings disaster wherever she goes. The fact that I was actually rooting for her to disappear into the sea so she wouldn’t screw anything else up really says a lot (I’m a nice person, I promise). Without spoiling it, I’ll just say, you should not mess with the animals, dang it.
All in all, it’s not something I would recommend. It has 3.3 out of 5 stars on Amazon, and some people are raving about it and giving it five stars (about 31 percent), so I know there are people who love the story. I am just not one of them.
– Reviewed by Fallon Willoughby, academic advising and retention, Western Kentucky University.