Review

Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is an irreverent fishy romance

A woman falls for a merman in The Pisces (above) written by Melissa Broder (right).
A woman falls for a merman in The Pisces written by Melissa Broder (above).PHOTO: LORD BYRON

FICTION

THE PISCES

By Melissa Broder

Bloomsbury Publishing/Hardcover/ 270 pages/ $35.73/ Books Kinokuniya 

4 stars


Not too long ago, critics were enthralled by Guillermo del Toro's fantasy film The Shape Of Water (2017), where Sally Hawkins' character falls in love with a human-like amphibian.

Now The Pisces, a refreshingly irreverent novel by Melissa Broder about a woman and her fishy lover, has swum into local bookstores.

A woman falls for a merman in The Pisces (above) written by Melissa Broder (right).
A woman falls for a merman in The Pisces (above) written by Melissa Broder. PHOTO: LORD BYRON

Fish love, so it seems, is all the rage.

The protagonist of Broder's book is Lucy, a struggling PhD student. After a dramatic break-up with her boyfriend, she moves to her sister's home in Venice Beach and helps her care for her diabetic foxhound. Things seem to take a turn for the better. Between rounds of group therapy and disappointing Tinder trysts, she meets and falls in love with a merman.

Broder, a Los Angeles-based poet, writes the astrology column for Lena Dunham's online feminist newsletter Lenny Letter.

Maybe it's only natural that her book should be a bit, well, loony. It's downright bizarre at times and filled with equal doses of carnality and hilarity.

"I liked the smell of his meaty breath, which he didn't know was rancid," says Lucy of her sister's dog. "I liked the warmth of his fat belly, the primal way he crouched when he took a shit. It felt so intimate scooping his gigantic shits, the big hot bags of them."

It's clear from the outset that Broder's book is not high-brow literature but chick lit plain and simple.

The protagonist is a mess - she is neurotic, hapless and desperate for someone to answer her howling mating calls. Maybe because of this, we can't help but feel for her.

The Pisces, written in Broder's breezy, tell-it-as-it-is style, is a surprisingly cathartic read.

Lucy is no Ariel or mute heroine. She might have trouble articulating her thesis on the Greek poet Sappho, but in every other aspect of her life she has plenty to say and has no qualms saying it.

Deeper questions are also asked.

Central to the story is the conceit of the gap or empty space - from the effaced lines of Greek poet Sappho's poetry to the body's orifices to the existential angst of a 38-year-old woman.

Should Lucy try to plug these gaps or learn to come to terms with them? What do we make of her impulse to look for love as a way of feeling more complete?

For all its silliness, at the heart of the story lies a kernel of feminist wisdom. If your "fairy tale" romance demands that you erase a part of yourself to make it work, what you really need is the good sense and courage to walk away.

If you liked this, read: So Sad Today (Scribe Publications, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of intimate essays on sex, death, mental illness, and other taboo topics by Melissa Broder.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2018, with the headline 'An irreverent fishy romance'. Print Edition | Subscribe