I decided to read When We Believed in Mermaids, by Barbara O’Neal, because it has been so constantly hyped on the Facebook page “What should I read next?” and with consistently good reviews. The reviews on Goodreads are less conforming and more critical, with people falling into the two categories of love and hate more or less equally.
The plot: Kit, a workaholic Emergency Room doctor in Santa Cruz, California, the product of a tumultuous childhood, is watching the news one night as a club fire is being reported in Auckland, New Zealand. She is shocked when a woman walks out of the clouds of smoke towards the reporter’s camera and she sees the unmistakable face and form of her sister, Josie, who supposedly died on a train in a terrorist bombing in France more than 15 years previous. Kit’s mother also sees the broadcast, and encourages Kit to take some time off work to go to New Zealand and track down her sister. Kit is both baffled and angry at the possibility that her beloved sister has let the family believe she was dead all this time, but decides the best way to put these feelings to rest is to discover the truth, and gets on a plane.
The story is told from two points of view, and in two time periods: The narrative alternates between Kit and her sister, formerly Josie but now Mari, and details the present-day circumstances and the past history of both, nicely weaving them together.
There were things I really loved about this book—O’Neal’s lush language employed in the description of New Zealand (and surfing), which made me want to hop on a plane; the details of the sisters’ past history, told interestingly from the point of view of the elder—damaged, reckless, and doomed by her own addictions—and the younger, who experienced many of the same events but perceived them in a completely different way; and the ambivalence of both at the necessity of tearing down the walls and telling the truth, finally. I also enjoyed Kit’s unexpected and rather steamy connection with Javier, the Spanish musician whom she meets in a restaurant on her first night in New Zealand, and who pursues her despite her best efforts to remain indifferent.
There were also things I didn’t particularly care for, and some that were almost completely extraneous to the story and would have improved it had they been left out. There is a whole subplot about a famous and historically significant house acquired by “Mari” and her husband, Simon, that acted as a distraction: The mysterious unsolved murder of its movie star owner is brought up and dwelt upon at length, and it seems like it will be an integral part of the plot, but then it just fizzles out and is wrapped up in a “by the way” near the end that is infuriating after all the time and attention paid to it. At one point when Mari is exploring the house and making notes about its contents, a stash of books all on the subject of mermaids is discovered, and the reader logically expects that these will play a part later in the narrative, but they never do. There are other references to mermaids that pull together the reason for the book’s title, but this particular one is a baffling throwaway. And there is way too much attention paid to whether Kit’s mother, a former alcoholic, is capable of adequately caring for Kit’s cat, Hobo, while Kit is away.
Beyond these specifics, I feel like the book also took way too long to finally get the sisters together, and then attenuated the time and conversation necessary for a plausible reunion or a resumption of any kind of relationship. I read the book on my Kindle, which obligingly gives a “percent of story read” statistic, and it took until around 85 percent to arrive at the heart of the matter, with 15 percent left to resolve things. The story would have been better had these events taken place at, say, 75 percent, with a little more attention paid to the climax.
I still enjoyed the book, identified with the characters, and was particularly intrigued by their unusual and somewhat horrific upbringing that led to all the subsequent drama, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to others. But just as on Goodreads, some may thank me for it while others may ask “Why?”