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  • The Fairy Tale Magazine

Book Review: American Mermaid by Julia Langbein

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

American Mermaid is an interesting novel about a Connecticut high school English teacher, Penelope Schleeman, who has written a best-selling feminist novel about a mermaid. Penelope takes a leave from teaching and moves to Los Angeles to help adapt her book into an action film, and much of the novel revolves around the clash of creative perspectives as studio employees try to transform Schleeman’s work into a blockbuster film.

The story of Penelope’s experience in the entertainment industry is punctuated by excerpts from her novel which tells the story of a young wheelchair bound woman named Sylvia who discovers she is truly a mermaid. Found by an infertile couple who pay to have her tail split into legs so she can be raised as a human, Sylvia has endured a lifetime of pain due to her environment. Penelope’s book explains that Sylvia “has no idea there’s a whole different way of being, an easy automatic power she would possess if she only found her way to the water.” While Hans Christian Anderson’s mermaid trades her voice for the ability to walk on land, Schleeman’s American mermaid starts on land and journeys to find her power in the sea.

Langbein’s book also features chapters of texts and emails between studio executives and Schleeman as they wrestle to bring the book to the big screen. The writing style of this novel is not the beautiful and evocative writing of a fantasy tale, but the author, Julia Langbein, a sketch and stand-up comedian, brings contemporary humor to the narrative which is both funny and poignant at the same time.

The fictional journey of the mermaid mirrors the emotional and medical journey of the novel’s protagonist, and the book will leave readers thinking deeply about the nature of disability, the struggles of teaching teenagers, the fears we inherit from our parents, and the transformative process of endless re-creation.

You can order American Mermaid here.

Thank you to NetGalley for a free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

Kelly Jarvis is the Special Projects Writer and Contributing Editor for The Fairy Tale Magazine. Her work has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer, Blue Heron Review, Forget-Me-Not Press, Mermaids Monthly, The Chamber Magazine, and Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. She teaches at Central Connecticut State University.

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