Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Girl with the Mermaid Hair: I Love It Even If I Don't Exactly Know Why

Check out that title - see how I didn't mention drugs once? Guess that means I'm feeling better!

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

So, I'm still trying to figure out exactly why Delia Ephron's The Girl with the Mermaid Hair is such a brilliant novel. Because it is. Brilliant. It's one of the simplest, but truest books I've ever read. Plus, it's funny. And the deftness of the characterization (caricature-ization?) astounds me. I guess that's the winning combination right there: Ephron's created a story that is simple, true, and funny, populated by characters who are pop-off-the-page real. It works. Brilliantly.

Our heroine, 15-year-old Sukie Jamieson, lives in a world of seamless order. She glides from her sparkly new development home to her brainiac high school to her tennis lessons at the club with a practiced grace. Because she "[is]n't only in the world--the world [is] watching" (62), Sukie must appear flawless at all times. No one can know that she's been up since 3 a.m. trying on dozens of outfits (then rehanging them "precisely - the collars on blouses and jackets turned down and matching, all shoulders even, jeans clipped so the legs fell to the exact same length" [133]), conditioning her hair (for "the exact recommended time for fortifying and softening and after rinsing" [136]), and blending foundations to the right consistency needed to "successfully [doctor] her most exotic feature" into absolute blandness. She must be immaculate, impeccable, defectless. And she is. With her lustruous mermaid hair, her creamy complexion and a figure so svelte it moves Hudson Glen's quarterback to declare, "I like your body-fat ratio" (6), she's as unblemished as Barbie. And when she faltered for half a second? Well, "She didn't like to acknowledge any situation in which she was less than perfect" (20).

This becomes a problem when her mother gifts her a family heirloom, an antique mirror which she predicts will become Sukie's "best friend and worst enemy" (3). It's a beautiful piece. Suddenly, Sukie - who checks herself in every reflective surface she can find - can see herself like she never has before. How did she never notice the way her nose ramps up instead of sloping gracefully? No wonder her mother resorted to plastic surgery to change the one feature she and Sukie have in common. And why, oh why, does her butt, normally "neat, round, and tightly packaged in jeans, waist size 27" (47), suddenly resemble "twenty-pound ham hocks?" (47). Is the mirror broken? Cracked? Distorted? Or is it Sukie's vision of herself that needs a transformation?

An honest look at her life reveals what Sukie's "selfies" (the camera-phone pictures she snaps constantly to make sure she has no makeup smudges, food in her teeth, mascara clumps or any other potentially-humiliating imperfections) cannot: The masks behind which Sukie hides - her Cover Girl face, her charming parents, her activity-filled lunches, her gorgeous boyfriend - have all been carefully constructed to hide the terrible, stunning truth that Sukie is insecure, friendless, unoriginal and, perhaps, the phoniest in a family of flakes. Can the obsessed teenager cope with this startling imperfection or will the knowledge cause her, like her lovely mirror, to crack, forever ruined?

I know it all sounds deadly serious, but it's not. Exactly. Ephron writes with a wit that makes the novel both sardonically entertaining and undeniably true. Because her story people are more caricature than characters, they're instantly recognizable, easy to laugh at - until, like Sukie, we receive a startling revelation: They are us. We are them. Obsessive-compulsive-neuroticness and all. Only when this truth sneaks up and hits us in the face can we understand the real brilliance of this novel. It's simple, complex, true - I love, love, love The Girl with the Mermaid Hair.

Now that my brain hurts from the effort of waxing eloquent, let me give you a little taste of the genius that is Delia Ephron. I don't generally love animals in my fiction, but the following characterization is so clever, so colorful, so spot-on that this dog leaps right off the page (not that he would do anything as undistinguished as leaping). It's a perfect example of the brilliance that makes this novel so compelling. The passage is long, but trust me, you're not going to care:

Sukie, her mom, and her younger brother, Mikey, turned to their dog, Señor, who sat at the head of the table.

When they all looked to see what Señor thought - and it was not the first time - Señor didn't bark. He wasn't a trick dog. He didn't bark once for yes and twice for no. And he wasn't a talking dog, there's no such thing. Medium-sized with a thick white coat, short pointed ears that were rosy pink inside, and a long graceful snout, Señor had powerful silent communication skills and an incredibly intimidating manner. He never licked anyone. None of that grateful happy kissing for Señor. No one had ever seen him roll over for a tummy rub, and his tail, which curled up over his back, did not wag. No one had ever seen him fetch his red rubber ball either. Every so often Mikey threw it for the amusement of watching Señor ignore it. "Is this your dog?" people would ask when they entered the house, even though Señor was clearly the Jamiesons' dog, what else would he be doing there, but there was something about his elegance, his reserve, the way he observed without moving a muscle that made people question whether he was a pet, anyone's pet. When one night he climbed into the chair at the head of the table, no one questioned it. Sukie's dad simply slid his place setting out of Señor's way and over to the long side of the rectangular table next to Sukie's. Her mom, at the other end, did likewise so that she sat next to Mikey. Señor, at the head, had the only chair with arms.

Did Sukie have a phone addiction? The family awaited Señor's verdict. His watchful gray eyes did not narrow, a good sign, and his mouth dropped open slightly, revealing small, even bottom teeth and the tip of his pink tongue.

"No," said Sukie tentatively. "No, I don't. No problem. I'm fine!" She jumped up and hugged Señor, gunking up her red sweater with white hairs. It was Señor's shedding season (9-10).

See? It's impossible not to adore this book. Even if I'm not exactly sure why - I love it.

(Readalikes: It reminded me of the movie Clueless and will probably be similar to its companion book, Falling to Pieces. I'll get back to you on that one.)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for language and some sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I received a copy of this book from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thanks!

3 comments:

  1. This sounds good. For someone on painkillers you write a "killer" review. I hope you're feeling better.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow, you know, I never even bothered to read the synopsis for this book as I always assumed it was some paranormal stuff, which I'm not a fan of, but now that I've read your (excellent) review, I really want to read this book! I'm SO tempted to order it! I might wait for the paperback, but this one's definitely very high up on my wishlist now! Thanks for the review!

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  3. I'm not really sure where to begin with this review. The Girl with the Mermaid Hair was an...interesting read - much different than they type of books I normally would read. To me, it was okay. I didn't hate it, but I didn't fully enjoy it either.

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