A Mermaid and a Princess

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

Other reviews:
Anita Book
Postcards from Asia
Fairy Layers
Anyone else?

4 thoughts on “A Mermaid and a Princess

  1. Hi Cheryl,
    Great review, thanks for linking back, I love reading reviews of books I’ve read, it gives me a different perspective on the story.
    Have you read any of Neil Gaiman’s books or short stories? I thought you might like them – in some of his stories he uses elements from famous fairy tales and makes them into completely new (and awesome!) new stories. “Smoke and Mirrors” is the name of one of his short story collection, I’ve read it and enjoyed it a lot!

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading! I also have fun reading reviews of books I’ve read. And I’ve read several Neil Gaiman books. He tends to have wonderful ideas–and particularly wonderful quotes. He gets referenced around here now and again. 🙂

  2. Interesting! “The Little Mermaid” has never been one of my favorite fairy tales, probably because I read the Andersen version, albeit in a collection for children, which means the dark bits may have been toned down a little. I remember the loss of the voice and the walking as if on knives, and I always thought it terribly unfair that the poor mermaid ended up as sea foam. (Poor Mr. Andersen must have been a very unhappy man, for almost all of his stories are sad, even tragic.) Your review had me intrigued, but I’m not sure if a “settling” kind of ending is any better. On the other hand, mermaids do seem to be impinging on my consciousness these days; I finished Dolamore’s “Magic Under Stone” last night and realized that I’m going to have to track down a copy of her “Between the Sea and Sky,” another mermaid tale. (Or is that tail?) I’ll let you know how I like it, once I find a copy; none of my usual libraries has it.

    1. I did find the ending vaguely unsatisfactory, but I still thought the book was worth reading. It was an interesting take on the fairy tale, and I liked how close it was to the original while bringing in new ideas and more depth to the characters. If you’re looking for Mermaid tales (or tails!) it’s worth picking up.

      Good luck tracking down “Between the Sea and Sky”! Always frustrating when libraries don’t have a volume we need… I haven’t heard of this one, but I’m always intrigued by fairy tale novels, so let me know how it is!

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