on the pisces

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.

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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.

14 thoughts on “on the pisces

  1. I’ve read a handful of reviews of this book and just not understood exactly what it’s about or why people like it. Yours is the first to include a coherent summary and reasons why you enjoyed the book. Thanks for that! I think I’ll add this to my list of books to check out from the library. I love that the cover is so sensual, and I wonder if the story is similar to the film The Shape of Water.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ve really only scratched the surface of everything going on in this — there are so many subplots, but the novel never felt meandering or aimless to me. I think The Shape of Water’s lot more heartwarming, in that it has a sympathetic protagonist and happy-ish ending – but both do focus on heroines dissatisfied with their lives.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Like Melanie, I’ve been half-interested in this book before, but reading your review has secured my interest. Although it does sound like a book which might require a certain mood, the one where you’re paying attention but also ready-for-anything. That mood doesn’t come around very often for me, but it’s also true that books which require it are less common too. Will let you know when I make it to reading this one and will aim to revisit your review at that time as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a perfect way of describing the type of mood to approach the book with — it’s the kind of novel that invites you to take it seriously even though it’s also often comic and takes surreal/zany turns. It can be hard to switch outlooks, especially when a book’s not well written, but I thought the transitions were fairly seamless in this. Interested in your thoughts if you ever have the chance to read this!

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    1. We really do! You read so much fiction that I find interesting. I’m still disappointed this didn’t make the shortlist – it was so sharp and would’ve made a perfect winner for the prize.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am not happy with the shortlist in general. I am currently reading Circe, which is beautifully written for sure, but just does not thrill me as The Pisces or Freshwater did.

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