I turned off the heat earlier than usual this spring, and in the laziness/thriftiness of refusing to turn on the A/C, water is all I can think about. When will the local pools open? When will the depleted icemaker churn out more precious cubes? Exploring new-to-me and old options for this month, The Pisces by Melissa Broder lodged in my brain. Before you read further, know the supernatural appears in the second-half of the book, so some spoilers are unavoidable.
Like most kids spoon-fed Disney, my first exposure to mer-lore was The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s quest to realize true love on land. Iterations of Peter Pan featured mermaids playful and doll-like (1953 animation), to flirty (Hook in 1991), to dangerous and fishier than human (2003). In modern storytelling, mer-peoplecrop up when the hero must learn a lesson about love (from Big Fish to the Series that Shall Not be Named).
When I first read The Pisces in 2019, early on I wondered if this myth would appear: “mermaid sex?” I scribbled in my copy’s margins. Lovesick characters emoting near a body of water, the setting is primed for mer-lore, and Broder doesn’t disappoint. Pop culture tropes depict mer-characters on a spectrum: against-all-odds lovers or cunning tricksters warranting caution. I reread The Pisces last month and knew Broder’s interpretation must be shared.
Lucy, 38 and trapped in Phoenix, Arizona, struggles to finish her Ph.D. dissertation on Sappho’s missing text. Jamie, her non-committal boyfriend of eight years, breaks up with Lucy for another woman. Annika, Lucy’s older sister and traveling yoga teacher, invites Lucy to Venice Beach for the summer to house-sit and care for her dog, Dominic. Personalities abound in Lucy’s group therapy sessions in California, where members like Claire and Diana battle sex addiction and dating phobias. And finally, Lucy meets Theo on the beach most nights. Seemingly an enigmatic surfer, flirting, hanging onto the rocks, Theo reveals an underwater surprise mid-way through Lucy’s stay.
The book’s first half makes the mythical twist more surreal. Reeling from the breakup and threats to her Ph.D. funding, Lucy’s obsession turns to stalking Jamie and self-harming. After an encounter with authorities, Annika swoops in, offering Lucy a California retreat for dissertation writing, therapy, and distance from Jamie.
Lucy’s days blur. She walks Dominic, rolls her eyes at group therapy, and attempts ever-sleazier Tinder dates. She switches her dissertation thesis altogether and wonders at her capacity for love, her unlovability. And she meets Theo on the beach most midnights. When Claire is hospitalized after a suicide attempt, Lucy returns to the rocks, and in her vulnerable state, kisses Theo. Nightly she returns, first base turning into third base turning into Theo’s big secret. Plopping his scaly behind beside Lucy, Theo explains his merman ways, his slow aging preserved by saltwater and adherence to the moon. Lucy, smitten and fixated, begins dragging Theo to the house by wagon. In their newly-found privacy and growing intimacy, Theo asks for more, but what about Dominic? What about Lucy’s dissertation? How can a desert girl and an ocean-dweller work long-term?
The Fresh Take
Without giving away a climax (*cough*) that made me curse the book aloud, the earliest Lucy and Theo interactions hint at their need, their insecurity, their hunger to be desired. Instead of glazed-over Disney endings or beautiful side quests, Broder takes us back to the myth in the time of Sappho. Mer-people were creatures of misfortune, who might marry humans who fulfill their conditions. Can we trust Theo’s mer-agenda as he entices Lucy to the shore?
I’ve stumbled across fewer mermaid tales in flash than I’d like, but the dark side of the lore remains front and center. The mermaid documentary woven throughout Juliana Lamy’s story of young, confused love and Libby Copa’s micro of a vengeful mermaid returning to the sea stand out in my memory. Please share more briny goodness with me (Twitter below)!
The Pisces, I’ve heard, is loved or fiercely disliked. For me, the narrative roller coaster overlayed with the supernatural was akin to watching a train wreck in a hand mirror. Does rooting for Lucy make me susceptible to similar heartbreak, the same reaction to loneliness? What magic am I overlooking in the nature I pass by daily? This book comes with content warnings for mental health treatment, addiction, suicidal ideation, and animal neglect. It’s not for everyone, but it was weird and intriguing enough to read twice, which is more than I’ve reread most books I’ve enjoyed.
Spookiness Rating: 👻👻👻
Though not a traditional horror book, sections had me grinding my teeth and practicing breathing exercises. Without an adequate support network, Lucy’s mental tailspins feel palpable, as if each sentence teeters us on the cliff’s edge of falling into her logic. The dating app is the necessary evil (Disney’s Ursula) for love, and Lucy’s fear of becoming a crone fuels the madness. And finally, Theo’s character shift from innocent surfer to love interest disorients from reality. Broder cultivates unease perfectly from page 1 to the breathless end.
Spiciness Level: 🌶🌶🌶🌶
Theo and Lucy moments, steamier than most romance novels I’ve read, deserve peppers to infinity. But readers must experience Lucy’s less-than-stellar one-night stands, the pain and longing recounted in group, to get to this spice. Disappointment, frustration, and depression simmering underneath is the milk overpowering the story’s later heat.
Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. Her work appears in Emerge Literary Journal, Rejection Letters, The Lumiere Review, and other fine publications. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.