Mermaids in the Basement by Michael Lee West
Reasons for reading: Review in People; the word "mermaids" in the title
First line: "If I had not read the cover story in the March 2, 2000, National Enquirer, it's doubtful that I would have gone to Alabama and ruined my daddy's engagement party, much less sent the bride-to-be into a coma."
Book description: "Reeling from the loss of her mother, plagued with a bad case of writer's block . . . Renata DeChavannes feels as though everything is just plain wrong. And that was before the tabloids caught her sweetheart, filmmaker Ferg Lauderdale, sharing an intimate squeeze with Hollywood's hottest young tamale. But the granddaughter of the formidable Honora DeChavannes possesses more hell than belle in her backbone—and she's about to reclaim it. Heading south to Honora's home on the Gulf Coast, Renata is determined to stop feeling like a wilted gardenia and emerge as the unstoppable kudzu her beloved grandmother proudly proclaimed she would be . . . But for that to happen Renata's got to face some not-so-genteel ghosts from her past, discover the truth about the mother she desperately misses, and make peace with the first man who abandoned her and broke her heart—her handsome and distant father."
My thoughts: I really enjoyed this book. The writing is excellent and each of the characters has their own distinct voice, which is important, as the story is told from many viewpoints and many points in history. I also liked the mermaid imagery sprinkled liberally throughout.
There are so many threads in this story and so many people play a part. Renata's past basically unravels and is put back together in a completely different way. Everything she thought she knew about her mother and father gets turned on its head. And she comes to terms with what she's always felt was her father's abandonment of her and is able to move forward with her life.
There's lots of humour, too - from Renata requiring an emergency hair chop after getting stuck on an earring to Honora's friend Isabella's (a long-ago Hollywood starlet) habit of sneaking pharmecuticals into food at parties.
The only little thing that bugged me was Renata's handling of the Ferg situation - it's so obvious that he's not cheating on her that it was frustrating that she refused to talk to him. But that was a necessary annoyance for the sake of the story.
Favorite character: Honora. She's a wonderful steel magnolia of a grandmother. I'd love to spend a week at Chateau DeChavennes talking to her and the family's former nanny, Gladys and being fed amazing food and looked after. I love Honora's stream-of-consciousness brain. Renata describes her speech as "swaying sentences" that used to make her seasick but now she finds soothing. Example (after fiddling with the car radio, on the way home after picking Renata up at the airport):
When Julie London started singing "Cry Me a River," my grandmother sighed, "Oh, I do miss the fifties, even though we didn't have good antibiotics back then. Now, we have better drugs and desserts. That reminds me, there's a new bakery in Fairhope that makes key lime pies with a nut-and-candy crust. . . We'll go there tomorrow or the next day. I thought about having the bakery cater your daddy's party, but I'd already hired the Grand Hotel.