What do women want? It is a question that, throughout the history of literature, mostly men have asked and mostly men have answered. With the cultural landscape finally seeming to shift, more works by women are getting published. This is an overdue embarrassment of riches, where women’s internal emotional lives and external struggles are being given the same appreciation as the near-exclusively male canon, without being pejoratively dismissed as chick lit.
The Shape Of Water has been the dominant human-merperson relationship in the current consciousness, featuring, let’s not forget, a female protagonist who can’t speak for herself. But, if there is any justice in the world, The Pisces, Melissa Broder’s first novel, and the voice of its yearning, fallible, heroine will blow it out of the… You know where I’m going with this.
Melissa Broder is the creator of So Sad Today, originally an anonymous Twitter account that acquired an astronomical following, thanks to Broder’s way with one hundred and forty characters to surmise the dark humour of living with depression and anxiety. A published poet, the eponymous collection of personal essays based on the account confirmed her way with turns of phrase that leave you dizzy from laughing and crying at the same time. The Pisces is her eagerly awaited foray into fiction, dipping into her themes of female desire, mental illness and self-sabotage.
Lucy is an academic trying to finish her PhD on the works of Sappho, grappling with contextualising and explaining not only the spaces in Sappho’s work but also the voids in her own life. Recuperating from a devastating break up by dog sitting at her sister’s Venice Beach house, Lucy embarks on a series of transient sexual encounters whilst attending sex and love group therapy. However, a charmed meeting with an honest-to-God actual merman called Theo forces Lucy to confront everything she thought about love, the future and herself.
The propagation of the “strong female character” may be a welcome relief from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl but what if you’re a woman who actually experiences mania, whose dreams are dangerous and self-destructive? Are you to be relegated to implausibility, to serve the emotional development of fictitious shallow men? Compelling characters contain multitudes and, therefore, contradictions. Lucy is exactly that, showing flashes of acute self-awareness whilst struggling to weather the tides of her own desire and to find and, crucially, stick to, a healthier way of expressing her need to connect. Lucy’s Sapphic studies PhD is a genius detail from Broder in a book full of genius details, stretching back through time and the mythic to get to the truth that nothingness is nothing new, for women or men, but an uncanny and integral part of the human experience.
Fantasy, like the sirens Lucy muses upon, has an alluring song but it is only when you get close enough that you realise the danger you are in. Broder’s achingly contemporary heroine is by contrast so realistic that it makes for a potent and moving mix. The Pisces is a cautionary tale about women being careful for what they wish for and it deserves modern classic status.
The Pisces is published by Bloomsbury Circus on 3rd May 2018.