A cover showing a woman lovingly embracing a fish AND a title which is my star sign (a sign that I personally extremely exemplify in all manners of my behavior)? Sign me up! Or so I thought. Turns out, despite wanting to know where this would go and thereby finishing it quite quickly, I wasn’t feeling it for a few reasons. And yes, I will get into all of them because I have realized that when I don’t like things I always feel like I have to go into a big explanation of it. As if I’m not allowed to simply not enjoy things unless there is a reason for it. Hmmm… that’s probably something I’ll personally have to ruminate over for a while. In any case! On with the plot:
The Pisces follows Lucy, a woman who has been stuck working on her dissertation on Sappho for 13 years, and recently broke up with her boyfriend, Jamie. Despite being unhappy in this relationship, she is devastated and falls into depression. After engaging in a number of erratic behaviors, Lucy’s half-sister insists that she goes to live in her house on Venice Beach for the Summer, and look after her dog. While there, Lucy is signed up to take part in a therapy group for sex and love addictions, and hopes that the time away will give her a new headspace for working on her thesis. While there, however, she falls into a new pattern of online dating hookups, and falling in love with a mysterious man she meets on the beach named Theo, who turns out to be a mermaid. Can they figure out a way for their relationship to work outside of the water and beyond the summer? Does Lucy really want that? Is she just falling into a pattern of old behaviors while thinking she has a new control over her life and relationships?
So there is a mermaid here, presented as a handsome man with all the right working parts (including an ass, as his tail doesn’t really start until underneath it!). But really the fact that he is a mermaid is more a symbol for an unattainable partner: you want to be with them fully but there is something in the way (not when it comes to sex, though; just how many graphic sex scenes can you fit into a book that clocks in at only 260 pages? Many, as it turns out!). Or perhaps he is symbolizing the kind of man who makes you feel special, like you were chosen and singular by this person who for some reason we have decided has status beyond that of everyone else; a slightly magical version of the boy in school that every girl wanted, so to be chosen would be like being anointed by a god. But can I admit that he didn’t seem all that interesting to me at all? The dialogue he spoke was very stilted and unnatural, and sure this is because he is a mermaid but it made him seem very distant despite saying all the words of love and affirmation. The chemistry wasn’t there for me in the first place so nothing between Lucy and Theo.
Where this novel really finds its footing is in its discussions about women and the expectations that women have in regards to relationships. That is, how women are expected to define themselves as one half of a couple, by how desired they are, by how they are told they won’t be truly happy until they find love which leads to people holding onto something that they *think* is love, or maybe they know that it’s not but having even a sham of it is less scary than being alone. Yadda yadda yadda YADDA! I empathize with aspects of Lucy’s plight and how she suffers from depression and feeling lost and untethered in a lot of ways; by her thesis, by her loss of a relationship that although no longer what she needed, gave her a sense of identity and meaning and a space to define herself in relation to someone else. How often do we hang onto things that don’t suit us anymore, just because we have known it for so long and don’t know who we would be without it? Or because we have spent so much time and put so much work into it, it would feel like such a loss to just walk away?
Unfortunately, despite these strong elements where the narrative actually explores relationships and the ways in which people feel a need for them, there were a lot of sticking points for me which lead me to not really enjoy this novel.
First of all, it’s a hard sell on Lucy as the protagonist at the beginning of this novel. She’s a mess and makes bad choices and is judgemental of other women, and you assume this is going to be a case of a protagonist who starts off unlikeable, only for us to watch as she goes through a journey and grows. And sure she does come to some realizations, but not to the extent needed for me to ever get on her side. It’s an experiment in watching what it takes for someone to truly hit rock bottom, and the casualties that happen on the way. After a while it gets frustrating to watch, and I kept worrying the whole time about the dog she was supposed to look after and the thesis she was supposed to write. But I guess the message here is that love and the pursuit of it can be so engrossing that you forget your responsibilities. And for the sake of those who are sensitive, I will give a little spoiler alert: The dog dies. And to what end? To show that even though she thinks she is just hurting herself so it’s okay to behave as she is, she needs to realize that she is actually hurting others in the process as well? I’m sure there would have been other ways to have shown that. [End Spoiler] It’s one thing to have an irritating protagonist that is absolutely fascinating to the point that you can’t look away even when they are being a bad person, but it’s a completely different bag when you are just watching someone make bad decision after bad decision and be unhappy and with their choices but still rationalize it to themselves. It’s really sad, tbh. This book is touted blend of humor and emotion but I am really blanking on what exactly is supposed to be funny about any of it; none of the humor stuck for me and just came across as frustrating or trying to be crass and edgy™ (“I’m not like other girls, I’m a cool girl because I like to fuck and express whatever’s on my mind even if people don’t like it!” type energy).
Speaking also about worrying about Lucy completing her thesis, metaphors and allusions to Sappho, greek history, and other literary pieces are inserted into the story that never quite stuck for me. In fact, despite the attempts to make her thesis about Sappho tie into the story and her realizations more or less feels like a blip. It’s like the author was trying so hard to connect dots that perhaps weren’t as connected as they wanted us to think.
Another further element that is introduced but didn’t feel like it lead anywhere truly meaningful to me was the protagonist’s engagement in more mystic pursuits right after her breakup. There is a whole section detailing how she looks to psychics and crystals and tarot and her horoscope for answers. This is presented like it will be a big plot point but never pays off. Sure, horoscopes are brought up in passing again later, but with a title like The Pisces and after such an intro to her mystic pursuits at the beginning you’d think it would be informing her choices throughout the novel more, no?
Yet one of the biggest sticking points that I struggled to get over, is something that I always have a bit of an issue with in any form of media: bad portrayals of therapy and counselling. Are there bad therapists out there? Of course! But that’s a whole issue in itself and would take on a whole different narrative. This issue with therapy in the novel does definitely relate to the unlikability of the protagonist as described earlier, given how she is so judgemental of the women she is in therapy with (and in fact the therapist herself for the most part), so obviously part of this has to do with the protagonist’s own viewpoints and resistance to therapy. But even beyond this, most of the women in Lucy’s therapy group are described as so gross, desperate, and pathetic; it almost suggests that only real losers engage in therapy and never get better since the group seems to enable them to continue to engage in their cyclical, repeating behaviors that harm them. It also includes a whole section where it makes a mockery of people talking about things that trigger them, making it seem like this is just a ridiculous thing that ridiculous people do. It also makes it seem like the therapist never has a hold on her group and is some gentle woman who never wants to rock the boat or actually challenge people or do any good for them. I just think we are beyond all that, you know? These bad images of therapy (for humor, I guess?) gives people the wrong ideas, makes them think it won’t help them and is just a load of whimsical hogwash, or makes them think it’s only for truly unhinged people. But that’s not how it works; Lucy wouldn’t be confined to this group or unable to change and go elsewhere. Therapists know that their individual methods are not for everyone, and will work with you to find a situation that will work better for you if you let them know that you are looking for something else.
I guess things like that just set me off easily, given how many years I was actually studying to be an art therapist (something I may have discussed before). But that compounded with all my other frustrations in this novel –with the protagonist, the decision-making, the lack of chemistry beyond the sex described, the symbolic references that didn’t really have much meat to them in my mind, and more–, I just didn’t find myself enjoying this one. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some strong ideas and points to make, but in the end it wasn’t enough to outweigh everything else.