Mermaids in the Basement

This one had such promise. I was looking for a light, fun, read. This one seemed like it fit the bill perfectly. The description from Publishers Weekly describes the book as follows:

Ripe with Southern charm and sultry atmosphere, West’s diverting and funny latest unravels the tangled gossamer web of an eccentric extended Southern family. At the heart of the novel is Renata DeChavannes, who has a pretty full plate: a tabloid ran a story about her longtime film director boyfriend’s possible on-set fling with an actress; her mother and step-father died in a plane crash five months ago; her father is about to marry his fourth wife (a squeaky-voiced young thang named Joie); and she’s just found a letter written by her mother instructing her to ferret out her mother’s dirty secrets. So Renata heads to her Gulf Coast Alabama hometown, where her indomitable grandmother Honora DeChavannes; steadfast former nanny Gladys Boudreax; and Honora’s longtime friend and former actress, Isabella D’Agostina McGeehee, live. The story flies by, loaded with grand parties, sumptuous Southern meals, multiple affairs and harrowing calamities.

The book, however left me flat. I didn’t really care much about the characters and nothing in the story really moved me. There were some amusing moments and the story held my attention, but the book had several major flaws.

First, there are a lot of characters, which in and of itself is not terrible, but we just don’t get into their heads like we need to in order to care about them. Louie and Shelby, the protagonist’s parents are spoken about in great detail throughout the book and yet remain an enigma to the reader somehow. I am not sure why, though I think perhaps that there are so many subplots that it takes away from character development.

Next, the protagonist, Renata is only mildly likable. I really wanted to like her, too, but she seems to put very little thought into her actions, which is frustrating at best. She is definitely not a strong character and for someone who is part of the entertainment business, she seems excessively naive. This is not a deal killer, but it does take away from the book, if not when reading, then in retrospect.

Further, the “dirty secrets” Renata has been told to uncover aren’t all that dirty. Obviously when you get deep into the details of the sexual exploits of one’s unfaithful parents, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, but to the outsider, it’s not that shocking. And it could work, but the tension buildup to the not-so-dirty secrets is a big one. Perhaps less suspense and the acknowledgment that these thins are shocking to the adult child of the adulterers alone would have made the revelations work better to someone observing from outside the family.

Lastly, the chapters are told from not only Renata’s point of view but several other characters’ and this is a little confusing, but not overly so. However, they are told from a flashback perspective rather than someone looking back and recalling the past and the way that is done is a bit odd. It doesn’t not work at all, but it was distracting.

Early in the book in a 1966 newspaper clipping, Houston’s Rice Medical Center is mentioned. Now, Houston has a large world-class medical center, but it is not known as the Rice Medical Center. We do have Rice University here and the Rice name is a prominent one in the city. Either the author made a mistake, made it up for the book, or the medical center was indeed known as the Rice medical Center in the 1960’s. If anyone knows the answer to this, please link me up.

However, the book is overall fairly entertaining and especially for the true Southerner, will probably bring back some childhood memories. It’s worth a library check-out, particularly if you are already a fan of this author, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend buying it.


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