Review of THE MERMAID'S MIRROR by L.K. MADIGAN
(review based on an advance reading copy)
I have always been intrigued by mermaids, and yet (I'll be honest) I find most of mermaid fiction trips headfirst into a pit of clichés. In the classic mermaid story, a mermaid either longs for the shore and humanity, or a human discovers her own mermaid ancestry and cannot resist the pull of the ocean. While I admit that THE MERMAID'S MIRROR prances right along the line between original and cliché, the story manages never to fall into a disappointing predictability.
Even though I may have called a few twists, the characters kept me riveted. The author treats each one with a humanitarian understanding, building them up from little pieces into extremely realistic individuals. Lena, the protagonist, while admirably independent, isn't a roughly drawn caricature of a "strong woman." She has understandable moments of uncertainty, and feels suffocated by others' expectations. A great part of why I found Lena such a relatable character is that - whatever flaws she does possess - she is not selfish. Though she might sometimes choose actions that benefit herself while hurting another, she feels the full weight of the decision and regrets that independence often comes at the expense of those who wish to protect her.
Her two close friends, Pem and Kai, do not feel like sidekicks, but like other humans whose stories are simply not being told at the moment. Kai is also Lena's boyfriend and I was pleased that their relationship felt balanced. Through Lena's eyes, we understand that Kai is coming on too strong, but he is never demonized. On her side, Lena could have actually tried to talk to him about their issues, or been more understanding that his behavior, though perhaps too enthusiastic, is coming from a place of love. The fact is that they're both people - people learning about who they are as individuals and how they might fit into a couple.
I've already emphasized that I think the characters in this book feel real, but I want to especially cheer for Lena's family. So many young adult books star protagonists whose parents are: absent, preoccupied, cruel, or flat out evil. Not this one! Lena has a loving, supportive family who may have kept a secret or two in her best interests, but are by no means unreasonable or unlikable.
This is not a book about mermaids; this is a book about Lena. Those readers expecting a book chock full of the mermaids implied in the title will be disappointed. Though this is certainly a fantasy book, Madigan's use of mermaids is restrained, which keeps the focus of the story on Lena: her struggles, her relationships, her choices. Like all good fantasy stories, the mermaids serve as a powerful metaphor for reality as Lena finds herself forced to choose between those she loves.
While I foresee the ending frustrating readers who like neat and tidy closings, I enjoyed it myself. I prefer stories where the character's life clearly continues off the page. Unless they've died, that's how it should be! Lena does make some important decisions in those final pages, but I closed the book with the sense that she still has a lot of life left to live.