I do not usually buy books new or buy them soon after they are published, but this was an exception. I felt like this book would be a five-star read for me, so I made a point to buy it quickly. It sounded magical, Gothic, and character driven, which are all things that I love in books and in historical fiction in particular. It was also short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So, you know, that must mean something for a debut author… The good news is that I was not disappointed by my assumptions about the book, but the bad news is that it fell slightly short of my five-star expectations.
Mr. Hancock is a merchant from a wealthy family, but as of late, his luck and wealth has taken a bit of a turn. He has not heard from one of his ship’s captains for quite some time. He is worried that the ship might be lost because that stroke of bad luck would cripple him and his family. When the captain shows up without a ship but with some exotic cargo, Mr. Hancock is not quite sure how to proceed. Angelica Neal was a rather famous prostitute, but she found a man to keep her. Unfortunately, that man died, leaving Angelica to fend for herself once again. Mr. Hancock’s special cargo brings he and Angelica together, but they come from vastly different lifestyles. Can the two of them find any common ground when it seems everyone else is against them?
I was correct that this was a character-driven novel. It is a slow, slow burn, which could easily turn many people off. Thankfully, the characters are quite well written, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Mr. Hancock is a rather simple, honest, and innocent man, but he is still imperfect in some ways. Angelica is at times grating with her expensive, luxurious tastes and ill judgement, but by the end, I warmed up to her. Angelica may seem superficial, but in reality, she is a complex character that evolves throughout the novel with her discovery of her true self. Admittedly, I do not think that the other characters grow and change as much as Angelica. There are a handful of other important characters like Angelica’s cold assistant, Mrs. Frost, and Mr. Hancock’s niece, Susanna (Sukie). They are all well constructed and realistic, but if you do not like the characters, you may dislike the novel as a whole.
The author’s writing is very descriptive but not overly embellished. I had hoped that the writing would be a little more lyrical, but it was still very good. There’s a reason that this book has earned some acclaim. One gripe some readers might have is that it isn’t really a very fantastical novel. When the title says mermaid, you expect a mermaid. I expected a bit more magical realism, but there really wasn’t much magic or much “mermaid” in the novel. Don’t go in expected to see Ariel from The Little Mermaid is all I’m saying!
If you expect magic and traditional mermaids, I would advise you to adjust your expectations slightly but not give up on reading the novel entirely. This is simply more of a literary, historical novel than magical realism or a fairy tale retelling. If you love getting to know characters very well, enjoy a well-described historical atmosphere, and like just the lightest touch of magic, you will likely enjoy The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock as much as I did. Four stars!