Review

Mermaids in the Basement

by Michael Lee West

Try
as she might, Renata DeChavannes cannot ignore the cover of The
National Enquirer
. It’s practically screaming at her,
“Your boyfriend is cheating!” And there, for all the
world to see, is handsome Scottish director Ferguson Lauderdale
canoodling with man-eating actress Esme Vasquez. They are supposed
to be working on Ferg’s new film, which is shooting in
Dublin, but the cozy pair seem to be doing everything but working.
Deep in her bones, she just knew that “somewhere in the haze
a skanky starlet is stealing my sweetheart.”

To add insult to injury, Renata, a former prolific screenwriter, is
suffering from the worst case of writer’s block, and worrying
about her philandering boyfriend while he is miles away isn’t
helping matters. After a disastrous and ill-advised haircut,
burning her manuscript and sending the charred remnants to her
studio bosses in a drunken fog, she relents to her feisty
grandmother Honora’s urging. She knows she is in desperate
need of a healthy dose of southern comfort --- stat.

Renata returns to Point Clear, Alabama, her Gulf Coast hometown and
to the welcoming arms of her grandmother and her former nanny,
Gladys. But all is not perfect below the Mason-Dixon line. Renata
must also face her emotionally distant father and his impending
nuptials to fading southern belle Joie. At no time has she ever
felt close to her father, a man who never misses an LSU game but
hasn’t remembered his own daughter’s birthday in years.
This hurt has been compounded by her mother’s recent death in
an airplane crash. Despite having one surviving parent, Renata
still feels like an orphan.

But Honora has a hidden agenda for wanting Renata to return to
Alabama. She made a promise to Renata’s mother that in the
event of her death, she would reveal all the family secrets to her
daughter, whether or not she’s ready to hear them. Honora
hopes that knowing the truth about her family will enable Renata to
move on with her life and flourish, like the kudzu she always
thought she could be. Gladys also desperately wants to help Renata
banish the demons of the past. She relates the story of how she
came to work for her mother, who suffered from crippling
depression, and the aunt she never knew existed. Even though Renata
has possessed more “hell than belle,” in the words of
her formidable grandmother, both Honora and Gladys hope they can
impart upon her the true meaning of being a “steel
magnolia.”

The whimsical title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem (“I
started Early—Took my Dog—And visited the Sea—The
Mermaids in the Basement Came out to look at me-”), a couplet
that can be applied to Renata’s story in many ways. The
mermaid theme also recurs throughout the novel, adding to the
charming touches that Michael Lee West likes to sprinkle throughout
her stories.

West, the author of CRAZY LADIES and SHE FLEW THE COOP, is one of
the leading writers of modern-day southern-fried fiction. In all
her novels, you can practically smell the gardenias blooming and
the corn bread cooling in humid but welcoming kitchens. She deals
with life’s heartaches and hiccups with homespun humor and
old-fashioned common sense. Although some of the interconnecting
storylines fare better than others, she engages the reader with her
sprightly writing style and gentle wit. And while some of her
characters’ attributes feel a bit forced in the folksy
department (like Honora’s habit of leaving couture handbags
in public where they will be snatched up by those less fortunate
--- she calls this “releasing them into the wild”), on
the whole they are an appealing bunch. Fans of West’s earlier
works will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 7, 2011

Mermaids in the Basement
by Michael Lee West

  • Publication Date: January 1, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0060184051
  • ISBN-13: 9780060184056