When We Believed in Mermaids

In When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal (2019), we meet Kit, a Santa Cruz ER doctor, and travel with her to New Zealand to look for her presumed-dead sister, Josie, after catching a glimpse of her in a news story. Through flashbacks, we learn the sad history of the family, disintegrated by neglectful parents, an earthquake, drugs, and alcohol.

Alternating chapters are told from Mari’s perspective. She is wife to Simon, a well-known Auckland gym owner, and mother of two children. He has purchased a historic house on a hill with a mysterious past for Mari to restore and redesign. It’s revealed that Mari is Josie, having created a new life in Auckland after a terrorist bombing of a train in Paris, when she was presumed dead.

Upon arriving in Auckland, Kit searches for Josie but is a bit sidetracked by meeting Javier, a Spaniard visiting friends. He is immediately attracted to her, but she is spooked–she hasn’t allowed anyone to get close since Josie died years ago. He turns out to be a famous guitarist, and pursues her respectfully and persistently. Kit continues to search, getting closer and closer, while Mari seems to sense it.

I enjoyed it, overall, despite some of the difficult topics in the flashbacks, and loved the New Zealand setting and subplot about the house Mari/Josie was restoring. But the author unfortunately included numerous descriptions of anti-fat bias that were unnecessary, specifically in the characters’ fear of becoming fat or having been fat as a child or teen. There is also much made of Josie being petite and her conventional “attractiveness”, and Kit having been the taller and larger sister. These descriptions of the characters’ body size and frame did not add anything to the plot. As a fat person, they made it harder for me to identify with the characters.

So I can’t recommend it without reservations and a warning that it perpetuates anti-fat biases and attitudes.

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