Teenage Mermaid by Ellen Schreiber
Target Audience: YA/Teen
Summary: Spencer almost drowns in a surfing accident when a sparkling, golden girl savse him with a kiss of life before she suddenly disappears. Where did this dream girl come from, and will she return? Lilly rescues a boy from nearly drowning and dangerously steps out of her own watery world. Curious to explore this forbidden land, she’s gotta find her handsome Earthdude. A silver heart locket is their only clue.
Type of Adaptation: Modernization
Let’s be frank: I didn’t go into this week’s adaptation with real high expectations. Between the book’s summary, the horrible computer art cover, and the fact that it’s only about 150 pages long, I was pretty sure I knew exactly what kind of book I’d be getting – high school melodrama with a veneer of fairy tale across it, cute, “fun little,” and insubstantial. And this book? Met every single one of my expectations. And then sat down to get to know them better. And then never left.
The metaphor got away from me. Point – this book was exactly what I expected it to be. It is “cute,” it is a “fun little” adaptation of a fairy tale, and it is thoroughly insubstantial. Somewhere, Hans Christian Anderson is rolling in his grave. Let’s talk about why, shall we?
So we start with this kid, Spencer, who’s a surfer, though apparently not a very good one, since the first thing he tells us is that “I panicked. I totally freaked out!” Why? Because he fell off his surfboard into the water. Now, I’m not an expert on surfing, but it’s my understanding that this happens fairly regularly, and if “wiping out” (I believe that’s the correct terminology) leads to freaking out, you probably shouldn’t be surfing. Just saying.
Anyway, he’s desperately trying to get to the surface when his surfboard hits him in the head, rendering him nearly unconscious. And would you look at that, before natural selection can do its bit, a shimmering golden girl with a tail saves his sorry ass. Unfortunately, she also apparently turns Spencer into a really bad poet, because he starts talking about her “pink-lipped smile,” and her “golden yellow and sun-fire orange hair,” and how her “piercing ocean-blue eyes stared through me and touched my soul,” and a whole bunch of other phrases that I’m pretty sure were last said by no fifteen-year-old boy ever.
And part of saving him (of course) requires her giving him The Kiss of Life (which will, unfortunately, make a return appearance before the novel’s end). He’s conscious enough to remember that, folks! As she hauls him to shore, he reaches out for the one thing he can touch, and walks away with some weird silver heart locket.
And then we shift to the mermaid’s perspective, and for about three pages, this was almost interesting. Because Schreiber made the choice to modernize not just the human world, but the mermaid world as well, and that was an intriguing idea to me. So, Waterlilly (no, I’m not kidding you), goes to a mermaid high school that’s just like human high schools, and it turns out she’s the equivalent of that outcast nerd girl stereotype who wants to do all her reports on Lord of the Rings and elves, except that her fascination is with humankind.
Turns out, the silver necklace she was wearing when she saved Spencer belonged to her great-grandfather, who was supposedly a human who turned merman for love of her great-grandmother, though her family denies that this is true. Somehow, the fact that he owned this locket proves that (??), and so Lilly “borrowed” it from her mother to use in a school report on humans that no one wants to listen to because mermaids apparently view us as a primitive species. However, in the midst of her report, Lilly realizes that, gasp! The necklace is gone! The Earthee (and no, again, sadly, not kidding you) must have taken it! And rather than face her mother’s wrath, and risk being sent to a boarding school in the Atlantic (horrors!) Lilly will do anything at all to get it back from him.
I do have to say that I like that what drives Lilly to the surface at the start isn’t love for this human boy – it’s a practical need to get her locket back, combined with the fact that that’s just a really convenient excuse to finally have a reason to go to the surface.
So Lilly and her best friend Wave (yeah, I can’t make this stuff up, guys. Other underwater character names? Beach. Tide. Ms. Dorsal. Madame Pearl. Because, you know, all underwater characters have to be named for underwater things just like all earth characters are named for earth things.) swim up to the surface to try and find Earthdude. And while they don’t find him, they do find the fliers he’s spread all over the beach, looking for the girl who rescued him, a “golden-haired beauty.” He also says, “I wear your silver heart close to my own” because this book just wants me to die from the cheesy, sappy, gooey teenage love juice leaking all over the place.
Anyway, the flier says he wants to meet her at the stadium the next morning, and so Lilly is determined to be able to shed her tail for the day, so she drags Wave to talk to Madame Pearl in the spooky “Underworld” of the sea.
Now, we all remember this part of the story, right? Mermaid gives up her voice, the most precious part of her, in exchange for legs, to win the prince’s love and an immortal soul, but the price is very high, and if she doesn’t succeed, she’ll die and turn to sea foam? That ringing a bell?
Know what Lilly gives up? Her crystal sea horse collection. And that was really only a bribe so that Madame Pearl wouldn’t require a parental signature.
. . .
That’s right, folks! One of the most heart-wrenching and desperate deals wrought in fairy tale history translated to the equivalent of a girl getting rid of collectables at a garage sale. She still has her voice, she’ll walk without pain, and at the end of the day, she can come right back home again. Just like Hans Christian Anderson intended!
Also, the potion only lasts a day, and if she’s not in the water by sundown, she’ll be a human forever! (Except not, for reasons we’ll get to) Gasp! Look at the tension! Imagine the stakes!
Except that Lilly is delayed from taking the potion within the parameters given to her by Madame Pearl, and so it’s . . . delayed in starting, and so Lilly’s transformation happens later than expected, and she misses Earthdude’s meeting time.
And Spencer? When she doesn’t show, this one time at this one place that he arranged hoping she’d see his flier by chance? When she doesn’t show? He descends into a deep despair because he knows he’ll never see the love of his life again.
Lilly wakes up then on a beach, and guess what, guys? She’s naked! Because the potion didn’t take clothes into account! Isn’t that funny? Isn’t it?
Anyway, after a series of chapters in which hijinks ensue as Lilly gets mistaken for a transfer student and has to attend Earth high school classes, and Spencer keeps getting glimpses of her and running through the school trying to track her down, but continually missing her, and every other comedy sketch cliche is played out to the absolute max, they finally connect, and though all Lilly really wants is her necklace, Spencer keeps talking her into just doing one more thing with him.
And does this end tragically, with her failing to make it back to the sea in time and being stuck as a human? Nope. She goes back, turns back into a mermaid, and swims away, and the only thing different is that now she’s in love with Spencer. And I do mean the only thing. Because in her love-clouded haze, she neglected to follow through on the whole reason she tracked him down in the first place – getting her necklace back.
When she realizes this, she decides it must be fate! She and Spencer are meant to be together! So what does she do? She goes back to Madame Pearl for another dose of the potion! That’s right, folks, she makes the same deal again! And what does she have to trade away this time? Her collection of beautiful seashells bras? Her dolphin companion Bubbles? No! She has to trade – nothing. Seriously. She claims to have nothing left, but that she needs it because this time it’s true love, and Madame Pearl says okay, then, this one’s on the house, because once upon a time, I had a love, too.
. . .
I think I’ll just go cry silently in a corner, okay? Ignore me.
Anyway, Spencer is back with his friends, lamenting the fact that he’s never going to see Lilly again, when lo and behold, there she is (not naked this time – she took precautions and wore three outfits so that one would survive the transformation!), in the flesh. And this time, she’s not leaving. She’s going to stay with Spencer past her deadline and live as a human for the rest of her life!
Except that, here comes Wave, walking on two legs, after Lilly to bring her back to the ocean! Yes, folks, it seems anyone can buy a pair of legs from Madame Pearl for some trinkets, or a heartfelt story about being in love! It’s a wonder the western seaboard isn’t crowded with mermaids at this rate.
Anyway, Wave makes the really pretty impressive point that Lilly can’t just give up her tail, her life, her family, and her home on a whim and proclaimed love for a fifteen-year-old boy. And legitimately shocking, Lilly is brought to see sense with this. Wave actually manages to convince her to return to the ocean before her time runs out, and you know what, I was prepared to be actually impressed if the book had followed through with this. If Schreiber and her editors had been gutsy enough to separate the lovers and let them live out their lives with just this memory of teenage love that happened once upon a time.
I didn’t for a minute think that the book would actually end that way, understand. I knew it wouldn’t happen. But I would have been impressed if it had.
But no. Spencer follows Wave and Lilly to the ocean, where he (and his two random friends) discover that, ohmigod! They’re mermaids! (Because, yeah, that hadn’t been revealed to Spencer before this). And Lilly is one moment telling Spencer, you can’t let your friends see me! It’s forbidden! And then, in the next, being totally fine with them being there, to say nothing of the fact that they’re all totally fine with learning that mermaids exist, but meh, whatever.
Anyway, they say their heartfelt goodbyes after Lilly explains that they can’t be together. And then Lilly and Wave swim away. And then Lilly starts to drown.
Yeah. You read that right. The mermaid starts to drown. Know why?
“She’s drowning of a broken heart.”
. . .
I just – . . . No. I can’t. I just can’t. Not gonna fixate, three pages left.
Anyway, Spencer is, of course, the Only One Who Can Save Her, by administering The Kiss Of Life, like she did for him way back at the beginning. Except, here’s the catch: if he kisses her, because he’s in love with her, he’ll turn into a merman. So, stay a human and let a girl die, or save her and give up your entire life. Ready? Go!
And he doesn’t hesitate. His heart knows the way. He kisses her. “That night, I saved a mermaid,” he says in the penultimate line, but it only gets better with the literal end of the book: “And, that night – I saved myself.”
Yeah, that’s where we end.
And, here’s the thing. For one passing moment, I had the worrying thought of what happens next. For one moment, I was invested enough in this story that I projected events beyond that ending. I worried about how Spencer might adapt to being a merman. I worried about the politics and segregation involved in the mermen community with this new arrival. And I worried about what would happen if this relationship that he just gave up everything for turned out to be just a passing teenage romance, and they broke up, and he was stuck there forever.
But the moment was fleeting, because I realized, well he can just go to Madame freakin’ Pearl and get a potion and go be human again, so it’s not like it matters!
And that’s the thing with this whole novel: Nothing matters. Nothing. There are no stakes. At all. No sacrifices, no hardships, no obstacles. There almost are. With the community prejudice and the logistics of adapting to a new world and whatnot, but we don’t ever get that story. All we get is a shallow and superficial teenage romance, and it breaks my heart that this is what Anderson’s poignant and beautiful story has become almost 200 years down the line.
And I feel like I should make something clear here that probably should have come up in the According to Cassie post – there’s reason I feel more strongly about keeping true to the spirit of this fairy tale than I would with, say, Rumpelstiltskin or Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast.
Because those stories, and indeed, most fairy tales? Aren’t original stories. They’re oral tradition tales, passed on from generation to generation, changing with each telling. That’s why so many version exist. It’s the nature of those tales to shift and mutate. When we read a book of Grimms’ fairy tales or Perrault’s fairy tales, we’re not reading stories written by those men. We’re reading stories collected by those men.
But with The Little Mermaid, that’s not true. This isn’t an oral tradition tale; it’s a short story written in a fairy tale style by Hans Chrisitan Anderson. He wrote this. He created it. It is his original work. And as a writer, I can’t help but imagine how I’d feel if a short story I wrote about the painful beauty of sacrifice and the need to live for other people was boiled down into an after-school-Disney-special-esque teenage romance. It’s just tragic to me.
So yeah. I feel strongly about this. How strongly? Well, let’s look at the checklist for that.
Exploration of the human characters? Even if Spencer had been wonderful, I couldn’t give this item a point because Schreiber completely wrote out the human girl who saves the prince. She’s not there at all. I mean, there’s a girl who has a crush on Spencer, but she gets four pages, is incredibly poorly motivated, and Spencer never looks twice at her. And then there’s Spencer himself, who is one of the most unrealistic fifteen-year-old boys I’ve ever seen put on paper. Just . . . no. Fifteen-year-olds don’t talk like that and they don’t think like that and they don’t interact with people like that. So, no. Just, no.
No villainization of the side characters? Okay, I mean, technically, yes. Our Sea witch wasn’t villainized. But Schreiber also took away everything that made her awesome, replacing her morally gray no-nonsense attitude with a secretly romantic heart and the outward veneer of a stereotypical Gypsy fortune teller. So, while I could give a point, I’d hate myself for it.
The message in the end? I’m sorry – drowning of a broken heart? Needing the Kiss of Life to be saved? I’d say this novel was adapting Disney’s version, but even Disney’s ending was more badass than that. At least it had sword-fighting with a ship and a parent sacrificing himself for his daughter. This book was just cheesy as hell in the end, and since nothing meant anything at any point, no. It gets nothing.
And I mean, okay. The book’s not horrible. I don’t walk away offended or insulted. It just . . . it’s cute. You can’t see the look on my face, but trust me. That word’s not a compliment coming from me. It’s cute, and a “fun little” look at The Little Mermaid, and that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.