Lately, whenever someone’s asked me what I was reading about, I’ve told them: ‘A middle-aged woman who starts fucking a merman’. If I were to sit and tell them what The Pisces is really about it would probably take more time than they’d be willing to spare.
The thing is, that for a book that can be condensed so crassly, The Pisces is a novel that has such depth, and so many layers, that it is hard to put into words. Despite the main love interest being half-fish, half-man, Melissa Broder tells a story that is achingly human — and as complex a novel we can expect, when dealing with what so often lies at the root of humanity: love, loathing, and dreams of better things.
Lucy, a PhD student struggling to write her thesis on Sappho, decides to housesit for her sister where it is hot and sunny and by the sea. She is, often, heart-stoppingly relatable, and a genuine example of the voice who says what we are all thinking, as she pursues flings at the same time as attending group therapy sessions that tell her, unequivocally, not to pursue flings. A man stops texting her, and she crashes; he messages her again, and she euphorically floats. She loves her sister’s dog more than any man (but less than a specific merman). In one chapter, she prepares herself to have anal sex for the first time — and, somewhat refreshingly, her preparations are far more graphic than the anal itself. In all, Lucy is so real that it seems as if you could reach out and touch her, and this fantastic realness is a greater draw to the story than any fantasy element provided by the merman — although he is definitely a pleasant bonus.
I’m sure many will pick up this book and then return it to the shelf, thinking it’s just another toneless, summer romance. I can assure you that The Pisces is not that book. Yes, there is sun and sand, and sweat drips; yes, it is sexy as hell; yes, it is told from the perspective of a heartbroken woman, who at times wonders whether life is worth living if there is no man in it. But it is so, so much more than mindless entertainment: the sex scenes are not perfunctory, or so unrealistic that you cringe, but some of the most honest representations of female sexual experiences I have ever read, and Lucy’s desire for the approval and love of men is a desire she constantly battles with.
The Pisces is a good book to read on a hot day, with pages that practically turn themselves, but it is also one of the most philosophical and thought-provoking stories I have come across in recent months. If it doesn’t make its way onto your list of books to read, then you’re probably doing summer wrong.
Melissa Broder, The Pisces – A Novel, Bloomsbury Publishing, 288 pages, available in hardback, paperback and Kindle, from £6.47 to £12.34