Mermaids aren’t the new vampires, but they are perhaps the young adult, literary gateway into the sleepy dream world of summer that will seem like fiction once school starts again.
Michelle Tea’s “Mermaid in Chelsea Creek,” the first book in a trilogy, is best read in July and August when we can share an oppressive Massachusetts summer with heroine Sophie, who lives with her single mom in Chelsea, a place she says is populated by “flocks of dirty pigeons and dented old cars; fish sticks with freezer burn and fast-food drive-throughs; scuffed, neglected parks, trash-strewn train tracks and a putrid creek.”
Tea’s love letter to Chelsea makes the place look truly awful, but the author does allow the city to be the nexus of magic when young Sophie meets a trash-talking Polish mermaid, who basically tells her she can save the world. Tea’s mermaid — and her unpredictable novel — is weird and often ugly. Grumpy adults turn out to be pure evil, while the nice ones turn out to be loopy forces for good. It’s as if Chelsea is Narnia, with talking animals, mind readers, and a heroine who, instead of finding a wardrobe, makes herself pass out with her best friend, Ella.
The tale works best when Tea focuses on the characters instead of the magic, when we get to know Sophie’s complicated relationships with Ella and her own mother, both of whom have trouble communicating love.
“The problem with feelings,” Tea writes, “was, first you had one, which was generally bad enough. But then you had a feeling about your feeling, and then a feeling about how you were feeling about your feeling, and then another feeling would pop up at the sight of it all . . . Oh, it was awful.”
The second book in this series will probably get more into the magic and the mermaid, but if we’re lucky, we’ll get more from the human characters, whose inner lives are as fascinating as the supernatural.
In “September Girls” by Bennett Madison, we’re taken to a North Carolina beach with Sam, a teenager forced on a summer of soul searching with his brash brother and dejected father, who are all silently coping with the loss of Sam’s mom, who’s ditched the family for “the land of women,” which Sam explains is a “state of mind that in this specific case exists somewhere near Cleveland.”
Sam is seemingly detached from his mother’s abandonment and more interested in the weirdness of his temporary beach home, specifically the young women who live there, all of whom are staring at him like he’s dessert. These gorgeous townies have strange accents and not-quite-right names like Kristle and Taffany.
“There were girls, and then there were Girls,” Sam explains. “It’s hard to say exactly what separated them, except that the other girls were just regular girls — I mean, the kind I go to school with. Some were pretty; some were busted. Some were fat; some were thin . . . Those girls didn’t pay any attention to me. It was the Girls who cared. The Girls who were all tall and blond and a little strange looking, all of them young and beautiful but odd. Who seemed sort of alien, who worked in the stores and restaurants . . . These were girls you wouldn’t be able to imagine living anywhere else but here, except that they seemed out of place here, too.”
We soon learn that there’s a reason these mesmeric women love Sam, a virgin — and for why they seem imaginary and temporary (think: M-word). We are also exposed to the inner world of the Girls, who narrate every other chapter in short, dreamy monologues printed in italics. Madison allows them to be truly unlikable sirens. Even DeeDee, Sam’s love interest, is mostly blank -- a sad character who doesn’t inspire much compassion.
Or maybe she does.
To be fair, it’s tough to read this novel if you’re a girl (as opposed to a Girl), who has always been mystified and jealous of the young women who run around the beach in bikinis, their legs somehow free of mosquito bites, their face blushing from perfectly painless, light burns. They host parties at homes where parents don’t interrupt. We girls like to assume they are vapid but the Girls clearly know something we don’t.
Madison’s story isn’t really about these cursed creatures who admit that selfishness is their “one true law.” It’s about Sam, who tells his coming-of-age story with such humor and embarrassing detail that we begin to root for him just a little.
Sometimes the book reads like a grown man’s narrative of a questionable teenage fantasy, and occasionally the novel’s descriptions of women are cringe-worthy. But in the end, Bennett gives us girls some respect. He makes it clear that Sam loves DeeDee most when she’s behaving like a real girl, or better yet, a human.
By Bennett Madison
HarperTeen, 343 pp., $17.99