Jenny Lipkin is a stay at home mom to two year old Betty and infant Rose. Much of the luster has worn off of husband Harry, once her knight in shining armor, now harried and working for his family's failing candy business. The four of them are living in a tiny, cramped Park Slope apartment and, at least in Jenny's case, facing an endless stream of days filled with exhaustion and stultifying sameness. One night when Harry calls from work to say he's stopping to pick up some cigarettes and then never comes home, Jenny is too tired to even worry. In fact, Harry has a gambling addiction and has disappeared before, although never for as long, and he usually comes home either flush with some extra money or with his tail between his legs. But this time, Jenny's in-laws are worried about him and not just because he's taken money from the business. Jenny's biggest worry, since her brother-in-law and mother-in-law continue to deposit Harry's base pay into the bank for her, is how to live on the meager base without his sales bonuses, and more importantly, how to function as a single mother.
Unable to cope, Jenny climbs up on the Brooklyn Bridge intending to jump but changes her mind at the last second. Falling in anyway, Jenny plunges into the river where she is not only visited but also inhabited by a rusalka, a mermaid from Salvic folklore. Rusalkas are not the benign and benevolent mermaids of Disney movies but the souls of suicides, wronged wives, and the like. The rusalka who posseses Jenny won't share much of her past with her new host but she does get Jenny out of the water, back on land, and back to her babies. She also becomes the interior voice urging Jenny on and convincing her to really live, to find happiness even if it takes a long search. But the rusalka wants this because she wants to experience life again herself and so she pushes Jenny into both good and bad choices, even one disastrous choice, whatever suits the rusalka's own desires.
As Jenny goes about her days in the park with her mom friend Laura, at the coffee shop, at the library story hour, flirting outrageously with the one stay at home dad in their circle of acquaintances, at the kiddie gym, and with her mother-in-law, she carries on an internal dialogue between her real self and her rusalka as she learns to be a little freer, a little happier, and a little less caught up in appearances. Of course, her husband is still missing and she's still generally depressed and angry but she's learning to cope and to take care of herself, much in the way she cares for the needs of her girls.
Jenny as a character is very isolated. She is suffering from post-partum depression but her isolation, the distance she keeps from everyone, including her best friend, means the reader spends a lot of time with her and in her head. Sometimes this is a humorous thing, like when she and the rusalka are negotiating but equally often Jenny can be so whiny, listless, and woe-is-me that it's hard to keep inhabiting her thoughts. Yes, parenting is surprisingly, appallingly difficult but she has a mother-in-law to babysit for her whenever she asks and at least some income, paltry as it may be, as long as her husband's pay continues to come in from the business. She has the luxury of checking out and that makes it a little hard to read about her slogging through her life, complaining at every turn, for as long as the book requires. And certainly real life post-partum depression does go on and on for even longer than the duration of the time depicted in the book but reading about it without change for so many pages got tiresome. The pacing of the narrative was very slow and drawn out, much as the years of parenting young children feel when you are in the midst of them. The novel is very much driven by Jenny's character and her dawning self-realization. Whether Harry comes back in the end, where he's been for the bulk of the novel, is almost entirely immaterial. And even the rusalka, central as she should be based on the title, flits in and out of the pages, simply a plot element that might or might not be entirely in Jenny's head and certainly isn't fully explored. What Shearn gets right about parenting though generally outweighs the problems of the book. An interesting take on motherhood, marriage, and the claustrophobia of depression, this would be a good choice for a book club to discuss.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.