book review: the pisces

The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Hogarth Press, 224 pp.
Published May 1, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this book from Hogarth Press for review purposes.

Lucy has been writing her dissertation about Sappho for thirteen years when she and Jamie break up. After she hits rock bottom in Phoenix, her Los Angeles-based sister insists Lucy housesit for the summer—her only tasks caring for a beloved diabetic dog and trying to learn to care for herself. Annika’s home is a gorgeous glass cube atop Venice Beach, but Lucy can find no peace from her misery and anxiety—not in her love addiction group therapy meetings, not in frequent Tinder meetups, not in Dominic the foxhound’s easy affection, not in ruminating on the ancient Greeks. Yet everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer one night while sitting alone on the beach rocks.

Whip-smart, neurotically funny, sexy, and above all, fearless, The Pisces is built on a premise both sirenic and incredibly real—what happens when you think love will save you but are afraid it might also kill you.

The Pisces is going to be a divisive novel...and I say that with relish, even though not everything in this tale of piscine seduction worked for me. In the ongoing saga of likable versus unlikable protagonists, narrator Lucy falls into an unapologetic middle ground. She struggles with forming healthy intimate relationships, which precipitates the novel's events. She also displays symptoms of anxiety, depression, and what an untrained observer could only term "craziness". And even though Lucy claims a (deceptively thin) self-awareness, she selfishly continues to indulge every unproductive whim that strikes her. She's strange, frank, and oftentimes a deeply troubled woman. All these characteristics might make her difficult to swallow for some readers—and occasionally did for me, as well—but Lucy is also achingly real.

How often in a day or a week do you notice an outrageous thought crossing your mind? Something so personal, so inappropriate, or even so rude that you would never share it out loud? It happens to all of us. Lucy's shameless inner monologue is relatable even in its more shocking moments; while I may never have thought about sauteing a merman's tail while kissing him, I've certainly had some non sequitur thoughts pop into my head at inappropriate moments.

Lucy's actions, though, are where some readers might start to fall off. Picking a fight with her long-term boyfriend could either be ill-advised or a chance to start over. Yet as she indulges in a spiral of self-destructive behavior while "recuperating" at her sister's Venice Beach home over the summer, Lucy displays a knack for avoiding what's in her best interest in favor of quick, empty fulfillment. At first the behavior is merely sad, until it takes a frustrating turn. Once her choices start impacting innocent bystanders—her sister's dog, whom she neglects; a friend from therapy with suicidal thoughts—sympathy can wane quickly.

But you would do well to stick with Lucy and her improbable love story. The Pisces is a story of one woman hitting rock bottom and readers will only find catharsis after she faces a final, life-altering choice. The entire novel reads like an extension of Amy Dunne's "cool girl" monologue in Gone Girl: incisive, witty, with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Several times I found myself laughing out loud, which doesn't happen often when I read. But beneath the glossy, comedic exterior there are sobering truths about mental illness and self-love.

Many of the book's challenges to readers come from a similar place as those we encounter in real life when a loved one struggles with the same things as Lucy, which is why I think they're worth working through. The Pisces is unconventional, sexually explicit, raunchy, and completely unapologetic for all those things. It's also unlike anything else I've read, and for that alone Broder deserves praise. While I struggled a little more than I would have liked, her cutting wit and the unexpected humanity beneath it kept me engaged until the end.


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