Sarah Ockler promises a dreamy and romantic version of "The Little Mermaid," loosely retold in a way that's more Disney than Andersen (mostly because: spoiler, it doesn't end in a horrifically depressing mess). Eylse is from Tobago, recovering in the Northwest Coast's Artagatis Cove after a sailing accident robbed her of her voice. There she is taken under the wing of her Aunt Ursula, a hippie witch who is not the type to sing "Poor Unfortunate Souls" so much as let Elyse cope with the trauma by silently observing the cove's summer flings and politics.
Of course that doesn't mean she doesn't get sucked up into the goings on anyway. When two of the powerful men, Mayor Katzenberg and Mr. Kane, strike up a bet over selling the land to real estate developers, Eylse finds out that she might have to help notorious playboy Christian Kane win the pirate regatta in order to keep her Aunt Ursula's home from being destroyed.
That may be the instigating plot but the novel's true focus comes in the interpersonal relationships as she is thrust into this bet. And since this is a romance, the primary one is between Elyse and Christian. At first blush, I wanted to roll my eyes at the typical playboy with a secret heart of gold they were setting up Christian to be, but he quickly shed the player status, and I was grateful for it. While he has the typical earmarks of YA love interests, Ockler keeps him from feeling too rote. Yes, he doesn't want to follow in his father's ambitious footsteps, but instead of making him a dreamy artistic type he's mostly just a privileged kid who has no ideas what to do except "not that."
The secondary characters also provide the most heart for the novel (ironic, since it's a romance). Christian's little brother, Sebastian, is a mermaid aficionado who secretly believes Eylse is a mermaid herself, and provides the major emotional moments for both Christian and Eylse to let their guard down. Sometimes he could feel like a plot device with how his desires perfectly synced up with where the story needed to go, like, for example: the scene where he insisted on a sea wedding between Christian and Eylse to get them their first kiss. But overall giving him his own struggles about wanting to be in the girls-only mermaid parade and small details made him endearing instead of exposition-y.
Eylse herself is a big draw to the story. She's already steeped in this romantic surrealism with her culture and her past, being the youngest of six sisters and born in the ocean, but the tone is consistent and her bitterness and trauma ring true. I doubt anyone expecting completely grounded narration would want to pick up a little mermaid retelling, so I found the poetic nature of her thoughts and writing to be well characterized, and I love having a narrator who came from another culture, one steeped in mysticism and music, having to find her legs again, so to speak.Readers can believe in a character who thinks in symbolism and makes pacts with the sea in this context.
Also? This book is one of the sexy ones, meaning there's talk of sex and sex positive portrayals. My personal tastes found it the perfect balance of letting it color the narrative without making it the finish line to the Eylse/Christian relationship. There's no extensive "slot A into tab B" play-by-play, but people wanting a clean read are going to be flustered from the multiple oblique references. Including the magical unicorn references of female masturbation presented as a natural matter of course with no shaming or issues whatsoever.
Awww yeah. Body language...
Ockler's story veers for muddled resolutions instead of clear-cut, and circuitous motivations instead of straightforward good and evil. It's very much the kind of summer read you bask in instead of devouring at a breakneck pace. Readers who look at the sea and imagine something underneath the surface will be the ones most rewarded with a tender and mystical retelling that's really more about rediscovering yourself through great loss than steamy hormonal flings. Although the ones reading it for steamy hormonal flings won't be disappointed either.
Worth chasing down a copy.