Since it’s hard to ignore Disney while talking about fairy tales, perhaps I should begin by saying that this is not a review of The Little Mermaid. It’s not a review of Andersen’s fairy tale either, but that’s a closer relative. Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon is a re-imagining and expansion on the Andersen tale, with all the dark parts retained and deeper characters developed.
The original story is about a mermaid princess who falls in love with a human prince. She gives up everything and goes through torture to gain legs and be with him, only to lose him to a human princess in the end. This book looks at the story through the eyes of both the mermaid and the human princess, bringing an added dimension to the tale. It’s definitely an adult version of the fairy tale, both for the sensuality and for the torment the mermaid goes through.
The story opens when Princess Margrethe, hidden at a convent to protect her from her country’s enemies, sees a mermaid drag a human man onto the shore below. Mermaids are mythical creatures in this land, and Margrethe is drawn in by all the magic that the mermaid represents. She feels sure that the mermaid brought the nearly-drowned man to her for a reason, and is shocked when she finds out the handsome stranger is the prince of an enemy country. Meanwhile, Lenia the mermaid princess has always been fascinated by the land, and now can’t stop thinking about the man she rescued. She seeks a way to be with him, while Margrethe looks for a way to prevent war. Unfortunately, they’re both sure that destiny is calling them to the same man.
Margrethe and Lenia are the center of this book, telling their stories in alternate chapters. While they’re both in love with Prince Christopher, the dynamic between the two women has in some ways a stronger emotional impact. Margrethe especially is drawn to the magic and mystery that Lenia represents. I very much enjoyed Margrethe’s character. She’s not a passive princess, but rather one who sets out to arrange destiny herself. She doesn’t wait for the prince or get dropped on him by her father, but rather actively orchestrates events, even when that means taking risks and making difficult choices.
Lenia is an intriguing character as well, with her divided longings for both the sea and the land. She also takes active steps (literally and metaphorically) to take the destiny she wants. She goes through far more torture than Disney’s Ariel. She gives up her voice, but not as a pretty ball of light–instead her tongue is cut out. Once she gains feet, walking inflicts terrible pain. All this is in the original, and wasn’t too gruesome…but definitely dark!
Christopher is a handsome, reasonably charming prince, though less complex than the two women. It would be easy to not like him, because in some ways he does take advantage of Lenia once she arrives on shore. However, I actually found myself not holding that against him. While I don’t think it was particularly admirable, I do think he was operating from a culture where there’s an expectation about relationships between princes and commoner girls, and it simply never occurred to him that Lenia wouldn’t have that same understanding. And he does show quite a bit of loyalty to her at points in the story.
I was not totally satisfied with the ending, and it’s a little hard to explain without spoilers. In some ways it tied up too neatly, with characters deciding they can accept things they previously couldn’t, and yet in other ways it didn’t give me quite the happy romantic ending I wanted. The whole premise is set up so that someone has to be disappointed, and instead of giving a happy ending to one girl and a tragedy to the other, we ended up with an ending where both are kind of settling…which works, but I think I might have preferred something a bit sharper.
Still, this was a very solid retelling of Andersen’s story. I recommend reading the original first, and then picking up this one for all its added depth and details.
Author’s Site: http://carolynturgeon.com