I’m calling it right now– The Mermaids of Lake Michigan by Suzanne Kamata will be one of the top five books I read during 2017.
Elise Faulkner is more at home in the waters of her beloved Lake Michigan than on land where her beauty queen mom is always on her back about her lack of a social life; her sister is dating the boy of her dreams; her favorite penpal–the one who wrote about mermaids in Ghana–has gotten married and ended their correspondence; and no one’s allowed to talk about her glamorous great-grandmother, the deep-sea wreck diver. Elise is biding her time with books until she can flee. But then crazy Chiara Hanover pops into her life, as does Miguel, a mysterious carnival worker whose dark future has been predicted by a gypsy.
Here’s the thing– the synopsis you’ll read on goodreads or the back of the book won’t do The Mermaids of Lake Michigan by Suzanne Kamata justice. The synopsis seems almost flippant with its talk of beauty queens and carnival workers and deep-sea wreck divers and mermaids (of course), but there is so much more gravity to this novel.
The Mermaids of Lake Michigan is a stunningly-written and poetic coming-of-age novel that takes place in the small, sea-side town of Grand Haven, Michigan during the 1970s. Life for Elisa Faulkner seems cookie-cutter-esque until she meets the Chiara Hanover, her neighbor’s vibrant and carefree granddaughter. They’re a bit of an odd couple at first, but Chiara breathes life back into Elise. It’s the small things at first– like influencing Elise to chop of her long locks and changing her wardrobe. Then it grows to skipping school and stealing away to the smoky clubs in Chicago with fake IDs to succumb to infectious, jazzy music. Along the way, Elise meets a young Romani man at a carnival, and he sweeps her off her feet with talk of destiny.
Every once in a while, readers also catch a glimpse of Elise’s childhood and her relationship with her mother. At times, readers see a pathetic vision of a mother trying to fit into the dress she wore when she was the winner of her local beauty pageant. They see her distant and depressed when she learns she is pregnant for a third time. They see her hiding a greyhound bus ticket that promised to take her far away from the family she helped build. And, it’s these visions that drive Elise to be impulsive– to follow her heart all the way from Michigan to Columbia, South Carolina. There she hopes to find love and destiny, but instead she finds longing and despair.
I knocked a star off my rating because I didn’t realize this novel took place in the 1970s for the first several chapters. Also for its use of the word “gypsy”, which is a racial slur, and its associated stereotypes.
I received a copy of this novel for free in exchange for an honest review as part of TLC Book Tours.