Grotesque, disturbing and vaguely creepy female characters are all the rage in popular fiction. From Gone Girl’s criminally conniving Amy Dunne to My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s horrendously apathetic unnamed narrator, audiences can’t get enough of inherently bad women. And while it’s refreshing to read about women who aren’t easily slotted into the normal categories for characters with two X chromosomes, it can still feel hard to relate to them and root for them. This may be in part because of the numerous ways we’ve been conditioned to judge and categorize women, and it may also be because, regardless of gender, these characters are just kind of crappy people.
This is why Lucy, the central character in Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, is such an enigma. Despite her grossness, selfishness and bizarreness, she is undeniably enjoyable. I’m not going to go so far as to call her likeable, because she isn’t, but I feel fairly comfortable saying I rooted for her nonetheless. Throughout her wild adventures and dramatic ordeals I found myself on more than one occasion smiling to myself and thinking “you go, girl.” And if that isn’t the mark of a well-cultivated character than I’m not sure what is.
One of my Bookstagram followers described The Pisces to me as a “hot mess of a book.” It’s a pretty accurate classification. With a bizarre plot that demands suspension of disbelief and a cast of increasingly troubling characters, The Pisces is not an ordinary love story. Thirty-eight-year-old Lucy has been unsuccessfully writing her Ph.D. thesis on the Greek poet Sappho for the better part of thirteen years. When her long-term relationship with a paleontologist crumbles, she hits rock bottom and, for lack of a better explanation, starts to kind of lose it. After an incident involving the police, pajamas and Dunkin Donuts, Lucy finally accepts an offer to house-sit for her wealthy half-sister at a beautiful mansion on Venice Beach for the summer.
Suddenly the guardian of a diabetic dog and a frequent patron of love addiction group therapy sessions, Lucy begins to adapt to her new Californian life. But a chance encounter with a mysterious swimmer on the beach threatens to suck her back in to the self-destructing cycle of whirlwind romance she has been trying to escape. What makes the situation even more complicated is that the mysterious swimmer may not actually be completely human.
The Pisces strikes a perfect balance between absurd humour, disturbing darkness, and genuinely insightful character study. It explores the pressure put on women to conform to certain stereotypes in relationships and to constantly play the role of nurturing caregiver, and examines the pressure human beings put on themselves to not wind up alone. Lucy’s intelligence – and make no mistake, she is intelligent, regardless of her inability to complete her thesis – is juxtaposed against her constant need to be desired and wanted and loved. She’s so desperate for intimacy that she doesn’t even bat an eyelash at beginning a relationship with a merman. It’s an outlandish situation, but there’s something undeniably relatable about it.
Broder leaves it up to the reader to decide if the aforementioned merman is a figment of Lucy’s imagination, fueled by stress, undiagnosed mental illness, and years of reading about Greek sirens and mythology. But if his existence is somewhat hazy, his actions are not. The Pisces is graphic and cringe-worthy and at moments vaguely painful to read. Broder doesn’t hold back on her depictions of both physical intimacy and human bodily functions, and her descriptions of the merman’s form are some of the more uncomfortable passages in the novel.
While a romance with a mythical creature may not exactly be Kosher as per the rules laid out for her by her love therapist, Lucy’s trysts with the merman lead her on a path of self-discovery, and what unfolds is a story that’s surprisingly feel-good and completely unputdownable. It’s hilarious and unique and so well written that at times you’ll be re-reading entire pages just to revel in Broder’s mastery of the written word.
The Pisces is undeniably bizarre. During one scene in particular, in which Lucy watches from a window as her befinned lover drags himself from her beach-side mansion back into the ocean after an argument, I found myself wondering what in the actual f*ck I was reading. But a moment later I was capitvated once again by Broder’s beautiful turns of phrase, and suddenly the strangeness of the story didn’t matter. What mattered was the meaning behind it – that love and romance and drama sometimes aren’t really worth all the trouble.