The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Hogarth, 2018; 271 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Love is the question in Melissa Broder’s novel The Pisces, and maybe the answer is in sex. Lucy, the heated novel’s protagonist, is working on her obscure dissertation on the poet Sappho when her nature-loving boyfriend Jamie decides to break up with her and move in with another woman. Lucy begs for Jamie’s return to the point of running into legal issues, and Lucy’s sister Annika invites her to dog-sit in Los Angeles over the summer to get some distance from the situation. Lucy agrees to the gig and to joins a therapy group with a focus on co-dependency, all the while signing up for a Tinder account and doing her best to forget Jamie by dating and having disappointing sex with other men.
One evening, however, when Lucy is sitting on a rock on Venice Beach and watching the waves come in, she is greeted by a man who she classifies as either a swimmer or surfer named Theo and starts up a friendship with him. Theo isn’t on any social media or dating site, but he knows the work of Sappho and swims every night regardless of the dangers of doing so; Lucy is intrigued by him as more than a friend. As her dating adventures continue to go downhill, she turns to Theo and discovers that not only is he interested in her romantically, but that he is a merman, with a history of his own. Once the relationship between Theo and Lucy shifts to a romantic nature, the quick humor of Broder’s beginning chapters disappears and the reader is left with a book that is less like the antics of Sex and the City and more like an explicit Greek tragedy, with such a saturation of sensuality and duration that borders on addiction:
Yes, it certainly seemed like the human instinct, to get high on someone else, an external identity who could make life more exciting and relieve you of your own self, your own life, even for just a moment. Maybe once that person became too real, too familiar, they could no longer get you high—no longer be a drug—and that was why you grew tired of them...It was so much easier for someone to be a drug before or after the relationship.
While Broder does compare sex to a drug, Lucy does recover from her addiction, not in the awakening of the incredibly odd nature of trying to assimilate Theo to her world, but in the realization of what she is accepting to be a part of his instead. When another tragedy overcomes Lucy with a complete depletion of her self-esteem, and the therapy group dynamic isolates her beyond salvation, Lucy nearly gives up everything to start over in Theo’s world. It’s only the realization of his patterns in love and lust that allows her to walk away from him. While this realization can nearly reach a point of lecturing the reader, and while the sex that leads up to the end of Theo and Lucy’s relationship can be stunningly graphic, Broder has set these approaches up as necessary; we need to know how obsessed Lucy is, as well as her tendency to try and solve her issues on her own. The humor in The Pisces isn’t only there for comic relief in intense moments; it’s there to keep the reader from mistakenly thinking that Lucy is on a straight trajectory upward, with no setbacks. Broder is keeping love, and the sex, real.