Mermaids in the Basement

Mermaids in the Basement Book Cover

Author: Michael Lee West
Original Publication: 2008
Genre: Fiction (Chick-Lit)

Billed as “a juicy novel of Southern discomfort”, Renata DeChavannes is a slightly overweight screenwriter who has just seen her superstar long-term boyfriend splashed on the cover of a tabloid with a hot young starlet wrapped around him. Furious, unable to reach him, and in the wake of her mother and stepfather’s untimely deaths in a plane crash, Renata storms through her house, ultimately coming upon a note written by her mother. “If you’re reading this, I’m dead,” the note begins, and her mother goes on to reveal that Renata’s childhood was not all that it seemed to be, and that she deserves to know the truth about her parents’ divorce when she was a little girl, her father’s subsequent remarriages, and the circumstances under which many of those things occurred.

Intrigued, Renata decides that she needs to go visit her paternal grandmother at her house on the Alabama coast, with whom her mother remained close after the divorce. Honora DeChavannes is preparing for her son’s latest wedding, and is delighted to tell Renata what she knows. Through her grandmother’s friends and a series of artifacts left behind by her mother, Renata begins piecing together the how and the why of how she came to be the person that she is, and wishes to reconcile with her estranged father, Louis.

While the book is quite funny and charming, I couldn’t help but compare it as I read to a paler version of Rebecca Wells’ “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” While there was nothing overtly wrong with the novel, it felt to me like it had nothing about it that hadn’t been done better by other authors. That said, I did enjoy the story, even if I was a little annoyed that the heroine being twenty pounds overweight somehow made her awkward, less beautiful, or etc. than her thinner counterparts. I realize that in Renata’s world (Hollywood), one can never be too thin, but I hardly think that the majority of the target audience of readers can relate to a size 8 woman being thought of as “fat.”

Fun Fact: The author, Michael Lee West, keeps a blog called Designs by Gollum, where she talks about food, design, and living on her farm. I loved her pictures.

Bother if: This was well-written, and a firmly enjoyable story. I liked Renata and her family, and much of it was very funny. It’s a sweet, lighthearted story and, although I think it holds itself out to be about the complicated relationships between fathers and daughters, was less about that than coming to terms with the events in your childhood which shaped who you became as an adult. If chick-lit is a genre you enjoy, I can see enjoying this novel very much.

Don’t Bother if: I can’t see the novel appealing to very many men, nor those who don’t read chick-lit as a rule. I didn’t feel, as I read, that there was anything about this novel which makes West stand out against similar authors, either as better or worse. The novel contains some extramarital sex (although not graphically detailed at all), but nothing else I can imagine finding particularly offensive.


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