Toronto Star

Comedy opts for easy escape


MICHEL BASILIÈRES Lydia Millet’s new novel, Mermaids in Paradise, is a prepostero­us lightheart­ed romp. A typical middle-class American couple on their honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands gets caught up in coverups, kidnapping­s, murder and a viral Internet sensation when one of their fellow vacationer­s, a marine biologist, discovers the existence of real mermaids.

The award-winning author’s latest book begins before their wedding when the narrator, Deborah, is agonizing over the preparatio­ns. We get more than fifty pages of backstory, wedding planning, the bacheloret­te party and finally the wedding itself, before the story actually begins. It turns out almost nothing of this preparator­y work will make a difference to the rest of the book. In this opening section, Millet uses a disingenuo­us fauxnaive style to describe and deride the ordinary and the banal. Here the word irony appears more often than almost any other in the entire novel, including mermaid. Irony. Got it.

But once Deb and Chip are safely liquored up in their Caribbean beach hideaway, we are introduced to a thinly drawn hoard of supporting characters who, when they’re anything more than just names, are simple cardboard types. There is an older and overly neurotic hippie chick who wears tie-dyed mu-mus and eats granola; there’s an ex-U.S. navy Seal who longs to blow things up and insults the gay couple; and a female Japanese veejay who never says a word, but luckily turns out to be a whiz with technology and pop culture. And there is a distinctly unfeminine female scientist, whose accidental discovery of mermaids living in the coral reef will precipitat­e the rest of the plot and her own disappeara­nce.

Once the trite cocktail party introducti­ons are done, and the action begins, it rarely lets up until the end of the book. The mermaids are discovered; the scientist is found dead; our heroine is kidnapped and locked in a room; the owners of the resort orchestrat­e an improbably grandiose scheme to corral the mermaids and make a mint charging tourists admission to see them.

Our cast of tourists is determined to foil this evil plot and the rest of the book is a relentless series of madcap chases and surprises, disappeara­nces and appearance­s. Luckily for our narrator Deb, whenever she gets into any trouble, it

Mermaids in Paradise proves childishly easy to get out of. When she’s locked in a small room, she easily lets herself out again by picking the lock with a hairpin. Thank goodness there aren’t any guards posted. And thank goodness her captors never thought to search her, leaving her with her cellphone, which enables her to text her husband Chip immediatel­y.

But things aren’t just easy for our heroes. They’re also simplistic­ally easy for the villains. Within hours they’ve rounded up a flotilla of ships to help them spread miles of deep-sea nets through the ocean to corral the mermaids. Luckily for them, none of the thousands of people necessary for this task question or object to it. In fact, the villains seem to have not just the local police but the island’s militia on their side.

I could go on, but the point is, absolutely nothing in this book is convincing. Everything happens easily: every problem, every solution, every surprise rabbit out of a hat. Including the soldiers happily switching sides just as things seem quite grim indeed, and at the climax (spoiler alert) the surprise appearance of saviours literally out of the blue.

Of course Millet’s novel is a comedy, and perhaps intended as satire. But everything is just too easy, from the snark that passes for irony to Deborah’s fairy tale prince charming of a husband, to the countless pages of bald explanatio­n necessary to keep the plot creaking along, so much of which happens offstage.

It’s a book that raises troubling questions only so as to soothe any anxiety they might induce. It’s a book that comforts the reader, but it shies away from the hard truths even as it seems to acknowledg­e them. Michel Basilières’ second novel, A Free Man, will be published in 2015. He is the author of Black Bird (Knopf Canada).

 ??  ?? by Lydia Millet, WW Norton and Company, 290 pages, $28.95.
by Lydia Millet, WW Norton and Company, 290 pages, $28.95.
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