The Mermaid of Brooklyn
Jenny lives with Harry in Park Slope (Brooklyn) with the two kids but then he disappears one evening (calls to say he's stopping for cigarettes) and she is left with Rosie, six months old and Betty, two and a half years old. It gets harder and harder what with the constant mess in a tiny apartment --- this is not your trendy Park Slope walk-up, but, rather a dump with no elevator, with a suspicious Puerto Rican neighbor, crazies outside on the steps, and there she is, with hardly any money in the till, her husband suddenly gone (his family runs a tiny candy company; they wonder what she did to run him off).
Baby Rose is colicky and have you ever had to deal with a colicky baby day-in-day-out at three in the morning or three in the afternoon or anytime at all screaming red-faced screech twisted body and you've gotten little or no sleep over the past weeks and there's no one to help with the screecher and the other one, Baby Betty, just old enough to test you with temper tantrums and biting the other kids when they go to Prospect Park?
And the only help that Jenny can depend on is a stick-in-the-mud mother-in-law who comes by wondering why the diapers haven't been changed and why there's always Cheerios all over the floor and sticky fingerprints baby gunk jam mess over there, dolls here, and it's hot hot hot the noisy air-conditioner pumping out hot Brooklyn air but if you open the windows there's the delivery trucks and the sirens and the fumes of the street and the guy downstairs banging on the ceiling for you to stop stomping around with the baby wailing while Betty just pulls everything out of the trash and the dolls, she whines, are hers not Rosie's and ... and ...
And suddenly you knew why Sylvia Plath took it as long as she could but then one day it just got to be too much and so she very carefully put the kids to rest in the other room and stuffed papers around the windows and in the crack below the closed door and sat herself down in front of the gas oven and opened the door get as close to it as she could and reached up and turn the knob and stuck her head in there and breathed deeply and ....
§ § §
With Jenny it's the Brooklyn Bridge. She says later she slipped on the railing after she decided not to go through with it: o yeah. The moment she fell in the water she was saved by a mermaid. A mermaid, one that had her own history, one that immediately moved in with her or rather moved into her and stayed with her and told her to stop being such a wimp, for christ's sakes --- that she was pretty, she was screwing up the kid-raising business, doing it all wrong (sometimes you have to let colicky babies cry and cry and cry ... sometimes) and that she --- Jenny --- needed to get laid.
She, the rusalka, gets her out of the water and on a bus home and Jenny wants to know why the rusalka's spirit is not "at rest."
"You died young?" she asks.
"A reluctant pause. Yes.
Did you kill yourself? Is that why you became a rusalka?
Jenny knows her stuff: she specialized in Russian folk tales when she was in college. Her friends all laughed at her but it came in handy, as folk tales often can.
Were you Were you a spurned lover? Unwed and pregnant? And you jumped into the water? That's what it always is in the old stories.
If you and I can swallow that other folk tale about a 1920s muni-bond salesman in Vienna turning into a dung-beetle who crawls all over the walls and the ceiling and scares away the paying tenants ... then I except we can accept this one about the rusalka. Who is, by the way, charming, a little pushy ... and usually right on. Jenny does spend an inordinate amount of time telling herself what a loser she is, especially after Harry deplanes.I am nuts about books that grab me and won't let me go. It's probably a sickness, or something in my genes, a typeface fix I need to take me over when things are getting out of hand. So instead of mooning over the computer or trying to figure out where the DJIA is planning to go tomorrow or wondering why my back hurts so early in the day, I'm swept up with that neat package of typeset pages that just will not leave me alone. You have to keep on with it because it is not going to let you alone either because it --- or at least this one --- has been shaped damn near perfectly into a story that demands your attention. Is it the plot? Is it the phrasing, the way the words (and the characters) are sewn together? Is it the "dynamic" .... as we used to call it in grad school? Whatever it is, Shearn has it.
§ § §
In the midst of all this husband-disappeared hot-summer raise-the-kids-turmoil here-comes-a-mermaid stuff, Jenny falls in love with one of her Prospect Park mates, another temporary single parent (his wife is a lawyer). He, nice-looking Sam, brings his toddler to where she and the trees are, along with the swings and the sandpile and the spaciousness. He's a housefather with his three-year-old Maude. He goes there almost every day but then he missed a few, and when he returns, Jenny "leaped up and waved and shouted, jostling poor Rosie, calling, 'Sam! Sam!'"
It was like the moment in a stupid teen romance where they spot each other at the prom and the edges all go soft focus and everyone else fades away --- it really fucking was. Can I add that I was still breast-feeding Rose? What on earth do you do if you get close to the object of desire while you happen to be lactating to feed another man's child? Shouldn't some primitive law of the jungle make that physically impossible.
Well, it is a problem. Everything is all messed up, Harry is out of the picture, she's broke, and tired, and feeling dumpy, and suddenly there's this guy with a delicious smile who seems to like her and turns up at the park too and she thinks that if she gets too close to him (she gets too close to him) she will and does find "the musky perfume of the neck."
He smelled so different from Harry. Woodsier, somehow. Darker. Delicious and impossible, like someone else's meal.
"He looked at me, squeezed my hand, let it drop. 'You're crazy,' he said laughing." And her fantasy, our fantasy, the fantasy all of us have when we think we love, and love being in love, when it all kicks in: "Like, if we were to get together, you know, together , and he is kissing my neck, his hands moving gently down my sides, in this fantasy, these are sculptural lines free of mottled bits or stretch marks or sticky scabs of strawberry jelly, obviously..."
And he leaned down to lick my breasts, to nibble a nipple, I mean, I'm sorry, but milk would come out, and --- It was no good to think this way, no good at all, very unhelpful, particularly on a dazzlingly sunny morning on a playground teeming with children.
Shearn is writing about a very exasperating situation. These kids. This tiny, hot, apartment. Detritus everywhere. And at times but only at times thinking that maybe what she is doing is worth it. "My everyday struggles held within them an echo of the legendary, that maybe if mothers had time to write, all the old epic poems would be about trips to the grocery store instead of wars."
Her friend Laura --- another playground buddy --- seems to have a perfect (and easy) time at being mother to her daughter Emma. "Maybe not I would ask Laura how she get Emma to be so infuriatingly well behaved all the time --- special vitamins? secret beatings? --- in a tone that would attempt lightness only to stumble clumsily toward accusation."
Or: Jenny's memories of her previous job, when she edited, did rewrites, at a classy magazine, all this before she got cast as what-they-call a "stay-at-home-mother" ---
Working had been a fairyland of free lunches, unsticky surfaces, magical creatures who never required diaper changes and cried only occasionally and then quietly in the bathroom, trying to hide it.
And then there is the matter of missing husband, the one that one should just be deleted from her mind ... but she is not a computer, we just can't blot out someone who took up the major part of our lives for a few years and then disappeared: "I missed Harry. I missed Harry so much, so deeply, curled up there in what was once our bed, with Rose sucking at my breast, my breast that once was more than just food, with Betty curled at my back, her sleeping fingers coiling into my hair, my hair that Harry had always said he loved, no matter how unruly it got."
I missed my husband so much I thought I would die of it. My chest went hollow, and as Rose began to doze off, I saw in the dim light a few of my tears dampening her brow.
§ § §
Shearn has a fine touch, managing in one book a scatter-shot recognition of things that have gone through my own life, the lives, I suspect, of many of us. She handles them gently and leaves us a little better, a little clearer for it. Stuff like Loyalty and Disloyalty and Hate-baby and Love-baby, Urban Community, City (esp. New York, esp Brooklyn) and Madness. Suicide, along with (perhaps part of) Boredom, Routine, and Maternity.
Then there are Morals (what are morals for, anyway?), Hiding feelings, Friendship, Our parents (how in the hell did they do it?)
Too, Spirit. Youth. Rebirth. And Enchantment, especially Enchantment.
Shearn is an enchanting writer. She doesn't miss a beat. All comes together as it should in The Mermaid of Brooklyn. . She deserves your love, attention, and affection.