A smart and subversive take on the romance novel, The Pisces injects existential angst into a fantastical tale about a PhD student’s mythical love affair.
Lucy is a 38-year-old Classics grad student facing a bleak future. Her long-term relationship with her boyfriend Jamie has collapsed, and her dissertation on Sappho has stalled; she’ll lose funding in the fall if her work remains incomplete, and Jamie already has started to date another woman. Enraged, Lucy one day finds herself unable to resist the temptation to punch her commitment-phobic ex in the nose, breaking it.
After the police investigate the incident, the grad student’s sister intervenes with a generous offer. In exchange for dog sitting and attending group therapy for love addicts, Lucy can stay at her seaside house in Venice Beach while she and her husband travel. There, she can finish the dissertation, get over Jamie, and reach a state of inner peace.
Aligning with the tropes of the genre, the heroine’s set up for a summer of self growth, but things don’t go according to plan. She spends her first few weeks in Venice struggling to restrain herself from mocking the other members of her therapy group, and she immediately breaks the counselor’s order to abstain from sex, going on a series of awkward Tinder dates with lackluster men. She contracts a U.T.I. in a public bathroom, and she rejects her thesis in its entirety, without any sense of an alternative.
The plot takes a surreal turn when, one late night on a walk by the shoreline, Lucy meets Theo, an alluring and mysterious swimmer who can’t tear himself from the Pacific. After a series of seductive encounters, Theo reveals to Lucy an explosive secret: the man of her dreams is a merman. Unfazed, Lucy’s as keen as ever to meet with Theo, and the romance intensifies, with the pair having more sex and less discussion.
Predictably an ultimatum is given—with frightening implications. Theo demands that, in lieu of leaving Venice upon her sister’s return, Lucy join him under the sea, giving up her life for their love. Having spent the past decade trapped in a loveless relationship at a dead-end job, Lucy feels torn about consenting. This kind of life-altering choice lies at the heart of the romance novel, but here it’s literalized and made horrific. The novel’s filled to the brim with similar generic subversions, as Elle’s detailed.
Lucy’s a far cry from the good-natured heroines of literary and popular romance novels alike. She’s callous, snarky, and self absorbed, to the point that she tranquilizes her sister’s dog so that she doesn’t have to properly care for him. Her nihilistic reveries about death, desire, and nothingness fill pages. Yet, her cynicism’s the result of a traumatic backstory only referenced in passing, and her failings in love and work are all too realistic; the lack of concern with Lucy’s likability feels incredibly refreshing.
The early sex scenes are also expertly written. In the first half of the novel the author fully renders the clumsiness of bad sex, as well as the strange mix of humiliation, disgust, and dread that so often follows a date arranged via Tinder. After Lucy meets Theo, the prose becomes effusive, delving into fantasy, but it’s no less memorable.
Sharp and daring, The Pisces reworks the romance novel in inventive ways. Out of what I’ve read for the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, this ranks as my favorite alongside Milkman. The storytelling’s intelligent and gripping, and the plot leaves you with an abundance of points to consider long after you’ve finished the novel.