23. Mermaids in the Basement ~ by Michael Lee West
From Publishers Weekly: 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.
Intrigued by the title, cover design, and plot, I picked this up from the New Releases shelf of the library. Alas, I only wish what was between the covers was as interesting. The symbolism of the mermaids is woven throughout (mermaid clips worn in one's hair is repeated several times) and at times gets a bit too heavy-handed. After 280 pages, I'm still somewhat confused as to the meaning behind the title; I get the idea behind the mermaids (I think ...) but "in the basement" has me stumped. The cover design also doesn't relate to any of the storylines - again, at least not that I could tell.
What I did like about this book was West's characters. She does a great job of depicting several memorable, strong, Southern women, particularly Honora and Isabella. As the protagonist of the novel, however, Renata isn't nearly as well-developed and defined as some of the others, which is a disappointment. Throughout the entire novel, I couldn't get the movie "Steel Magnolias" out of my mind; if this is ever optioned for a film, my bet is that they reunite Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis for this one.
There are also WAY too many characters in this novel - and they've all got something to say. Mermaids in the Basement is told by many, many points of view. For that reason alone, this is a book to read when you have an unlimited, uninterrupted amount of time. This is not a novel that can be read for a few moments before drifting off to sleep, for you will instantly forget what transpired, who did what to whom, who told you about it, and how they're all related.
I'm giving this 2.5 stars (out of 5) because there were parts of the book that I liked - the characters, and the descriptions of Point Clear, Alabama are very well-done. It's also very true to the genre of Southern fiction, which I enjoy. However, having the book told in multiple points of view, the "too-neatly-tied-up-and-too-hastily-of-an-ending," and the disconnected-ness of several of the storylines holds this one back from being a truly enjoyable read.
(This is the 23rd book I've read in 2008. My goal was to read 25 books this year.)
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