This reading group guide for The Mermaid of Brooklyn includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Amy Shearn. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Jenny Lipkin is an average, stretched-too-thin Brooklyn mom, tackling the challenges of raising two children in a cramped Park Slope walk-up and bonding with the other moms about breastfeeding while spending endless hours in Prospect Park. All she really wants is to survive the sweltering New York summer with a shred of sanity intact. But when her husband Harry, a compulsive gambler, vanishes one evening without a word, Jenny finally reaches her breaking point. And in a moment of despair, a split second decision changes her life forever.
Pulled from the brink by an unexpected (and, as it turns out, sometimes annoying) supernatural ally, Jenny is forced to rethink her ideas about success, motherhood, romance, and relationships. Confronting her inner demons—of both the mermaid and non-mermaid variety—is no easy task, and eventually Jenny has to come to terms with who she truly is, for better or worse. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What do you think Jenny learns from her time with her mermaid? How does she change from the beginning of the novel to the end? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How are your perceptions of these altered throughout the story?
2. How do Jenny’s ideas about what constitutes a “good” or “successful” mother change from the beginning of the novel to the end? Consider the revelations she has about herself, as well as Sylvia and her own mother.
3. Discuss Jenny’s attraction to Sam, a.k.a. Cute Dad, before the rusalka comes into her life. Do you think she would’ve acted on her feelings if there weren’t a mermaid in her head urging her to? Why or why not?
4. What do you feel Sam’s motivations were in his pursuit of Jenny? Did your opinion of him shift throughout the novel? Toward the end, Laura plays Jenny Sam’s diner recording. Were you surprised by anything he said?
5. After sleeping with Sam, Jenny thinks: I’d found that people who said things like “I have to start thinking about myself” tended to be people who were very good at thinking about themselves. And Sam and I were always saying things to each other like, “We have to think about ourselves.” Did we really? Was there anything so valuable in thinking about ourselves more than we already did which was almost constantly?
(p. 284) Do you think there a difference between thinking about yourself and caring for yourself? Do you think sleeping with Sam was ultimately helpful for Jenny?
6. Jenny seems to have something of a love-hate relationship with New York; though she and the other Park Slope moms complain about the unique difficulties of raising children in the city, they continue to stay. What do you think it is that keeps them from moving? Do you think they see their frustrations as something of a badge of honor? Do you find that’s true in your life as well?
7. Think about all the different women who influence Jenny’s life. What does she learn from each of these women at various points throughout the novel?
8. From Jenny to Sam to Laura, there are a multitude of characters in the book who are constantly struggling to appear as though their lives match this grand, group-perpetuated fantasy of what family-dom in Park Slope should feel like. How does this affect them? What does this say about the power of belonging versus our intrinsic desire to stand out? Why do you think people put such stock in appearances, when the truth is that everyone has their struggles, oftentimes the same struggles?
9. Most fairy tale heroines are rescued by magic in their darkest moment, just as Jenny is. But often they realize that the magic isn’t enough to truly save them, just as Jenny does. If you could have a moment of magic, what would you want yours to be? What would you do with the type of second chance Jenny receives?
10. At several points, Jenny considers that no matter how dramatic personal problems feel, they are shared experiences, part of a larger narrative. The rusalka too points out that her everyday struggles are nothing new, that “maybe if mothers had time to write, all the old epic poems would be about trips to the grocery store”
(p. 112). Do you agree with these realizations?
11. Laura and Jenny go from having a fun, if somewhat shallow, friendship to something much more lasting by the end of the novel. What do you think causes the shift? Does their friendship remind you of any relationships in your own life?
12. Where did you think Harry had gone? Were you surprised when he returned? What do you foresee for the two of them?
13. In retrospect, Jenny recalls her magazine days as having a haze of perfection about them, though she knows in reality she had an equal number of frustrations then. Do you think this grass-is-greener trap is one we all fall into during difficult times in our lives? Has it ever happened to you?
14. Similarly, she also reflects (about her daily life as a stay-at-home mom): “I hated that I felt like I had to be unhappy in order for it to count as important”
(p. 58). What do you think about this statement? Do you feel that today we equate stress with importance, and contentment with a lack of ambition? Why or why not?
15. Jenny finds that sitting down at her sewing machine is one of her only ways to find a minute of peace and express herself. For Laura, her late-night interviews offer the same type of outlet. What hobby or talent allows you to reveal yourself more clearly to others? Is there something specific about you or something you are good at that you feel draws others to you? Enhance Your Book Club
1. We learn bits and pieces of the rusalka’s story, but never the whole truth. Have each member of the group write their own little origin story for her and share them! Alternatively, have each member pick a country and research their folklore on mermaid/water spirits to share with the group. Or read a classic mermaid tale, like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid
and discuss how it differs from the popular Disney retelling.
2. Compare this novel to another book that share themes of motherhood and self-discovery such as The Peach Keeper
or Prospect Park West
. How are they similar? How are they different? If The Mermaid of Brooklyn
was made into a movie, who would you cast?
3. Visit Amy Shearn on Facebook (Facebook.com/AmyShearnWrites), Twitter (@amyshearn), and on her blog at HouseholdWords.wordpress.com, to follow her real-life adventures as an author, mother, and Brooklyn resident!
4. Invite someone new to your book club… Amy Shearn! Visit AmyShearnWrites.com to find out how Amy can call in or video chat with your club. A Conversation with Amy Shearn You note on your blog that the book is (very!) loosely based on the life of your great-grandmother. What elements did you draw from her story?
Well! My paternal great-grandmother’s name was Jenny Lipkin, and she was married to a ne’er-do-well named Harry. Harry supposedly had ties to the Chicago mob, but you didn’t hear that from me. He was notorious for leaving to buy cigarettes and not coming home for months or years, which I would think would be a very annoying habit in a husband. They actually divorced once and later remarried. (When I asked my grandmother why she thought Jenny would take Harry back so many times she shrugged and said, “She loved him.” This, from the least romantic woman in the world.) Jenny and Harry had three daughters, Rose, Betty, and my grandmother, May, and when Harry was gone Jenny supported the family with her sewing. According to family lore, Jenny became famous in their corner of Chicago for being able to perfectly copy department store dresses. She was also very small in stature, with tiny feet, and particularly in her later years, given to grouchiness.
Everything I know about her has been dispensed in dribs and drabs by my grandmother May, who is now in her late nineties, and not much given to reminiscing about the past. About nine years ago we were shopping for shoes for my wedding and May rather casually said, “Did I ever tell you about how a pair of shoes saved my mother’s life?” This was a story that only the women in the family had been told—my father had never heard it. But according to May, back when Jenny was still in the old country (some unspecified region of Lithuania) and Harry had gone to America and not yet sent for her, (probably they were married, possibly she was pregnant) Jenny was feeling low. She climbed onto a bridge and considered jumping. But then she looked back and saw her shoes, a fancy cobbler’s pair of lace-up boots of which she was very fond. Remember that she had tiny feet and Zappos didn’t exist yet, so good shoes in her size were hard to come by. Jenny thought about how she didn’t want anyone to take her shoes. And then, she didn’t jump.
When I asked my grandmother why Jenny considered throwing it all away, she shrugged and said, “She was depressed!”
There are other bits of family history dispersed through this novel somewhat at random, with very little attention given to chronology. For example, Ever So Fresh was a candy company run by my grandparents and great-uncle and aunt in midcentury Chicago. I just loved the name and always wanted to use it for something. It sounds so sweet and lovely, but as a child I always heard it mentioned with a shudder of bitterness—the company had long since dissolved, and had not exactly caused feelings of family togetherness. Are there any small moments in the book taken from your own life as well?
Oh dear. Much to my (very good, decent, devoted) husband’s mortification, Jenny’s life on the surface does resemble mine, or at least at the time when I was writing the first drafts. When I started writing this I had a four-month-old baby. She grew and acquired a baby brother, so by the time I was doing my final revisions I had a two-year-old and a new four-month old baby (which led to some last minute rewriting of child-related scenes, as you can imagine). We were living in what I affectionately called “our Park Slope tenement,” one of those oddly configured walk-ups in a cut-up Brownstone that seems so charming until your children start moving around. Like Jenny, I found a community of parents in Park Slope that helped me deal with the weirdness of new parenthood. And like Jenny, my background is bookish. I also worked briefly at a magazine, though I was not nearly as devoted to it as Jenny is – I was a freelance web editor and therefore kind of an interloper mostly there to spy and get book ideas. Oh yeah, and I also have a poorly behaved mutt.
But I’d like to add that I DO NOT HAVE A CUTE DAD (that’s for my husband, but it’s true) and also that I was lucky not to have to deal with the issues Jenny faces, namely, depression and post-partum depression. I did know many mothers who felt adrift after the birth of their babies, and who had really dark feelings they felt guilty about addressing. It seems ingrained in our culture that good mothers should be loving every moment of child-rearing, and also that it should all come naturally. So in many ways when I started writing this I was talking to these freaked-out mothers I knew, and of course to me, in that 1% of the time when I felt totally crazy. I actually think all mothers of small children feel like Jenny does about 1% of the time. She just has the misfortune to feel that way 99% of the time. What inspired you to add a supernatural twist to the book? Was there anything particular about mermaid mythology that fascinated you prior to writing Jenny’s tale? Were there any other creatures you considered before deciding on the rusalka?
When I first heard the story of the original Jenny Lipkin and her life-saving shoes, I was in graduate school studying literature and writing. I’d been reading a lot of fairy tales for this other (now non-existent) novel I was working on, and had come across the rusalka, that menacing mermaid of Slavic lore. Somehow these two ideas mingled in my head immediately—the rusalka being the soul of a lost woman, and the Slavic Jenny Lipkin almost losing herself, maybe losing herself anyway, who was to say— but I didn’t know what to do with them yet. For some reason I thought it was a personal essay. I remember going for a walk in the woods with my friend, the excellent writer Amanda Fields, and telling her about it and having her say, “Shearn, that’s not an essay, that’s a novel,” and looking up at the sky through the leaves and thinking, “Shit. She’s right. But that sounds hard.” What was your favorite fairytale or myth growing up?
I was enraptured with Thumbelina
, particularly Tasha Tudor’s dreamy interpretation of her, and really any story that involved small creatures appropriating everyday objects as beds, boats, and the like. I don’t know if this counts, but for a long time I was obsessed with all the Oz books, and L. Frank Baum’s particular brand of witty magic. And, I’m sorry to report, I recall a sustained delight at watching the dress changing colors in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The rusalka’s background remains something of a mystery. Did you imagine a story for her while you were writing? What do you think the rusalka did during the six hours Jenny can’t remember?
I did, and I actually wrote out her whole story and it in an early draft, but my insightful first readers pointed out that it became distracting. I think it was important for me to know, because like anyone, the rusalka’s actions are shaped by her past, but in the end I like the idea that the readers can create it for themselves if they are so inclined. I also feel that leaving it out gives readers more room to consider the possibility that the rusalka is not actually a discrete consciousness but instead a figment of Jenny’s mind.
I can’t reveal any of the rusalka’s secrets. Mostly because I am afraid of her. It is said that authors write themselves into their characters. Did you find this to be true? Are any of the characters in The Mermaid of Brooklyn based on people you know?
I’m sure, probably more than I realize. I used to love Carl Jung’s idea that every character in a novel stands in for an aspect of the author’s consciousness. Then I looked it up one day and realized I’d retrofitted his idea for my own purposes, and that he was actually talking about dreams. Oh well. At any rate, while I vehemently deny that Jenny is me, I’m sure aspects of myself and other mothers I know show up in her.
Laura is kind of an amalgam of mom-friends. Weirdly, after I wrote this, I had several friends mention that they’d had miscarriages, like Laura does, in between their first and second babies. (Each time I was tempted to say, “FYI, if you ever read my novel, I already put something about a miscarriage in there, but it’s not yours,” but somehow it just didn’t seem appropriate.) I feel like this miscarriage symbolizes the many things women know and experience but don’t talk about except with each other. There’s this whole dark and difficult side to motherhood you don’t have access to until you’re in that world.
There are other people in the book who are caricaturized versions of Park Slope playground archetypes; Nell the annoyingly perfect mom; Evelyn the hot mess; the frazzled late-middle-aged mother of an adopted Guatemalan kid; even the nannies screaming into their cellphones. I love Park Slope, I really do, but sometimes you have to poke fun. I mean, I’m fully aware that the novelist-parent is just another Park Slope type. What can you do? This is your second novel. Was the writing process any different than with your first book, How Far Is the Ocean From Here?
In some ways it was very much the same. Like most humans, I always have something time-consuming going on—with the first book it was a nine-to-five day job, with this book it was motherhood—so necessarily have a workmanlike approach to writing. I carve out some time, reserve it for writing, and use every second of that time to work, work, work. If you do this every day or every week, eventually you have a draft of something.
Besides the logistics, the main difference was probably my ideal reader. With my first book, I was fairly certain no one would ever read it and so I had this weird freedom to write something that pleased me and only me. With this book, I had a specific, if imagined, non-me reader in mind. Here’s what happened: I’d just had this conversation with my wise, tells-it-like-it-is agent which had made it clear to me that it was time for the Jenny Lipkin story, which I’d been too afraid to write, because it seemed so intense and dark and maybe too close for comfort. (i.e. I didn’t want my grandmother to be mad at me.) Later that day I found myself at the playground as usual, pushing my baby on the swings. A somewhat frazzled mother I knew was talking about how she couldn’t find any novels she wanted to read, and also about how frightening she found parenting a baby, particularly in Brooklyn. She said she just wanted to find a book for moms like her, not glamorous rich moms who were constantly having hot sex with their gardeners or whatever, but middle-class, educated women who felt a little adrift, who weren’t sure if it was okay to raise kids in the city or if they were doing their families wrong by staying here. I knew I had my ideal reader. The next step was to start the book, which I did later that day (that’s probably a lie, but that’s how I remember it), as my baby slept in the carrier on my chest, because newborn babies are awesome. Would you share a little bit about your writing methods? For example, do you plan your stories first with an outline or do they come to you as you write them? Did you know the end of the story when you first started writing, or did it evolve as you went?
I’ve always been one to set aside blocks of time for writing, but with this book I had even less time of my own, as in none, so I had to be more efficient. With my first book I started with an image and a character and kind of dreamily wrote my way through. This time I started with an outline, had the end in mind, tried to write toward that end. I’m sure if you looked at the two books side by side you’d be able to tell which was written in long, uninterrupted, muse-consulting sessions by an open window in my home office, and which was pounded out in frantic stolen hours in noisy coffee shops. It worked out, though— this book is quicker and leaner and more direct, I think.
That’s not to say there weren’t lots of revisions. There were. In an early draft that I don’t even think anyone read, Betty runs away the night Harry comes home, and it’s when Harry finds her and brings her home safe that Jenny realizes how much she loves him and the family needs him. I quickly deleted this, though, as it felt too much like a device, the action was being dropped onto Jenny, as usual, rather than her creating or deciding something out of her own will. I realized it was important that Jenny is thinking for herself, after all of this time trying to please others or being dictated to by the rusalka. Also, as my own daughter reached the age of 2, I thought, “There is no way a kid that age would get all the way down those stairs and out the door by herself.” How has being a columnist, a blogger, and a mother impacted your fiction writing? Do you ever find it difficult to wear both the “mom” hat and the “writer” hat at the same time?
Oh, of course. Besides the logistical issues, being a mother means that you have all of these things to say about motherhood that aren’t necessarily pleasant, but also that you want to shield your babies from all the unpleasantness in the world. A blog feels ephemeral, but with a book, you start to worry about your kids reading it someday and going, “Uh, Mom? Are you okay? Did you hate me when I was a baby?” I feel like I don’t want them to read this book until they have children of their own, when they’ll understand that the angst in the book is nothing personal.
I also think that my blog is lighter and funnier and goofier than my fiction, because in my real life, I’m not depressed, my kids aren’t colicky, I have a great husband who’s incredibly devoted to his family, and I’ve never had to deal with the really awful things Jenny encounters like spousal abandonment and non-sleeping babies—so the blog has much more about, you know, fun outings and art projects, and funny things my adorable kids say, and books we like to read. But, as I always tell my daughter when she gets anxious about the parts of picture books where things actually happen, “You have to have some trouble in a story or it’s not a story.”
I am lucky to have this part-time job writing blog posts and short essays for Oprah.com, which means that I get some hours every week to devote to seeking and creating subject matter that is life-affirming, uplifting, and focused on happiness—which I have to say was a truly lovely antidote to spending so much mental time with Jenny Lipkin. Who are your writing influences? What are you currently reading?
I’ve always been a catholic (with a small c, of course) reader, and I’m influenced by everything. My early literature loves were the Modernists, especially Virginia Woolf, who could write absolutely everything, from clarion essays to psychologically complex novels to totally crazy formal experiments. I’m continually awed and inspired and nourished by Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, Kathryn Davis, Joy Williams, James Salter, Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, Miranda July, Lorrie Moore and I could go on and on.
In thinking about writing this book, I looked to writers who tell difficult stories beautifully, like Elizabeth Strout, Alice Hoffman, Alice Munro, and Charles Baxter. More recently, my slow-readers-book-group read Katie Ward’s Girl Reading
, which I adored, and a book-blogger friend pressed into my hand a copy of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book
which is the perfect, quiet summer book. And on my bedside table, along with a stack of my kids’ picture books (really) are Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be
, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!
, Cheryl Strayed’s Torch
, Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home
, and Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist
, and I wish I could read all of them at once right now. I have a constant hunger for novels, clearly. What do you hope readers remember and carry with them after reading your novel?
My greatest hope for this book is that it might help one mother somewhere feel less alone, and less freaked out, or at least to know that it’s okay to have complicated feelings about motherhood and marriage. I wanted to write about the secret lives that women lead, the stories that women only tell other women, the creative potential so many women squelch because of the circumstances of their lives. My mother’s painting always took a back seat to raising us kids, same for her mother who was a life-long aspiring writer, same for her mother who wrote at least one never-published novel—I think there is some story like this in every woman’s life.
But mostly I just wanted it to be entertaining. What are you working on next?
Well, I try not to talk about projects in progress because I start to feel superstitious, but I will share that it’s a ghost story, which is ridiculous because I never read ghost stories and have certainly never written one. I was inspired by Patrick DeWitt, the author of this amazing, gorgeous, funny, sad Western novel called The Sisters Brothers
, who said in interviews that he was totally unfamiliar with the whole Western genre and just made things up as he went along. My hope is that my ignorance will set me free. Or at least not hinder me too much.