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New Lydia Millet novel is farce, with mermaids

"Mermaids in Paradise," by Lydia Millet (Norton, November 2014). Photo Credit: Norton

MERMAIDS IN PARADISE, by Lydia Millet. W.W. Norton & Company, 290 pp. $25.95.

Chip and Deb have flown from their home in California to a ritzy Caribbean resort in the British Virgin Islands for their honeymoon. They are young, given to extreme sports (Chip) and drunk-dialing their girlfriends (Deb), and never shy of a glib thought.

In her new novel, "Mermaids in Paradise," Lydia Millet sets Chip and Deb on a collision course with farce and loses control of her plot. The action centers on another resort guest, a marine biologist named Nancy, who discovers a population of mermaids off the resort's coast. Chip and Deb accompany Nancy to investigate, aiming to discover if the mermaids are real or a hoax.

Describing these shimmery creatures, Millet puts on show the accomplished writing that her fans will recognize: "Their hair floated in clouds behind them, long weightless-looking swaths like seaweed, as did their tails, which moved up and down slowly as the tails of dolphins move, not side to side like the tails of fish. Those tails were graceful, beautiful muscles, scales shining silver in rows and rows of small coins."

Having glimpsed the mermaids while scuba diving, the honeymooners feel genuine concern for them. Soon, Chip and Deb are transformed into eco-warriors, when the mermaids become endangered by greedy developers who seek to exploit them. We readers, though, may never come to care about these "fish-tailed quasi-humans," because Millet fails to introduce them as individuals or invest them with meaning: They are just pretty abstractions under the sea.

Bringing in an anthropologist to oversee the new "cultural encounter" under way is a deft touch, but the dramatic events that ensue -- kidnappings, rescue missions -- are drained of color or flavor. When Millet introduces a plot twist the size of the Atlantic only two pages before the novel's end, our response may be just a disappointed shrug.

Millet occasionally strays into intriguing territory by way of Chip and Deb's conversations with each other and their new island acquaintances. Ideas about the denial of science, the fear of evolution and the scary state of our environment all make brief appearances, but soon the too-broad humor reasserts itself, sometimes in odd ways. "Tropical flowers are rapists! It's a jungle. Giant rapist flowers!" one character claims.

Check out, instead, Millet's backlist, starting with her most recent novel, "Magnificence," a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, or "Love in Infant Monkeys," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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