Book review: 'American Mermaid' offers satiric look at Hollywood

"American Mermaid" by Julia Langbein (Penguin Random House)

This hilarious novel by comedian Julia Langbein is also about something serious: a young woman trying to have her voice heard and find her place in a world that seems bent on diminishing her.

This story within a story is a shrewd, sardonic look at Hollywood moviemaking and how its mythmaking hacks can systematically cheapen and even destroy important stories in their quest to make money.

It sets out with Penelope Schleeman, who struggles to pay her bills on her salary as an English high school teacher in Connecticut, finding overnight success when her novel, also called "American Mermaid," becomes a bestseller.

Penelope's story tells of a childless couple who find a baby mermaid and adopt her as their own, splitting her tail into two leg-like appendages so she can pass for a disabled human girl. Young mermaid Sylvia lives on land and gets around in a wheelchair.

The book's popularity attracts the film industry, and Penelope is soon headed to Los Angeles to see her feminist novel translated into a big-budget movie by producers who want to transform her fierce young protagonist into a helpless sex kitten.

While distressed by what is happening to her story, Penelope appears incapable of communicating her objections.

Mysterious happenings soon suggest Sylvia has magically come to life to punish a ruthless industry for ignoring the intent of Penelope's tale.

First, Penelope attends a party at a Hollywood bigwig's beach house and almost drowns in a rip tide while swimming in the ocean.

Then Murphy, a co-writer on the script, is seriously hurt when he is called into traffic by an apparent mermaid song. Threats pop up in the script, with messages apparently from Sylvia begging Penelope not to sell out and let the Hollywood hacks make her into "SOME. DUMB. WOMANNNNN!"

Penelope learns to resist, like her namesake from the epic poem Odyssey, weaving and unweaving to hold off her enemies.

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