American Mermaid by Julia Langbein
This splashy debut novel is part Hollywood satire, part girl-power eco-thriller. High school English teacher Penny moves to LA for the summer to adapt her bestselling novel into a movie. In Penny’s book, also called American Mermaid, protagonist Sylvia is an asexual engineer who discovers that her disability—she has chronic pain in her lower body and uses a wheelchair—is due to her true nature: she’s a mermaid. Despite Penny’s protests, the bro-y screenwriters assigned to the project want movie-Sylvia to be sexed up, aged down, and have superpowers.
Between chapters about awkward Hollywood parties are excerpts from Penny’s version of American Mermaid. Her original characters are well-rounded with complicated motives, which makes the screenwriters’ attempts to flatten them—”What if she just KNOWS science?” even more cringeworthy. Author Julia Langbein is attempting a lot here, but the result is a hybrid novel that adds a feminist, sci-fi twist to mermaid lore. A dryly funny, genre-bending beach read.
Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System
(Originally published in Bellingham Alive September 2023 issue.)