John Wilkerson is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon who needs a break from dreary Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so he takes advantage of the opportunity to work on a research project, as well as camp on the beach and explore Culebra, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. When he arrives, he realizes it’s not quite the tropical paradise he envisioned. He decides to snorkel alone, even though he hasn’t done so for several years. A combination of a panic attack and getting his flipper entangled in turtle grass results in near disaster. But John awakens on the shore after being pulled to safety.
An old woman, as gnarled and twisted as an ancient tree trunk, observes the rescue. When John regains consciousness, the wizened old midwife, Ana, is hovering over him, waving a vile-smelling liquid contained in what appears to be a bottle from a mini-bar under his nose. He tells her that he was pulled from the water by a woman. “You should thank God for your life,” Ana tells him. “The ocean is as lethal as it’s lovely. You’ll do well to remember.”
John soon meets the beautiful, but mysterious young woman who pulled him to shore and is enchanted by her. But John believes she is little more than a girl and far too young for him. Still, with her flowing amber curls, blue eyes, and milky skin, she is completely unlike any other woman he has ever met. They swim together for a bit, but she tells him she must return home to her father.
John is soon joined on the island by his girlfriend, Zoe, who is also a graduate student. Zoe is assertive, sure of herself, and aware that she is extremely attractive. By the time she arrives in Puerto Rico, John is wracked with guilt about having enjoyed a dalliance with Raimunda, a raspy-voiced island resident who seduced him.
But John cannot forget his rescuer, the ethereal Tamarind, who has fallen deeply in love with him. But in order to win John’s heart and enjoy a future with him, Tamarind must transform herself. That is because Tamarind is a mermaid, one of the mer people who reside in Mother Sea. Tamarind strikes a deal with Ana, the old witch. Tamarind will become Ana’s servant until the end of the rainy season in exchange for Ana’s assisting Tamarind with putting off her tail. It’s a painful, dangerous process, and Ana cannot guarantee success. And even if Tamarind becomes human, she will transform back into her true self if she does not mate with a human male during the same time period.
Thus, as Tamarind lives with Ana, in hiding from her father, who will be understandably enraged if he discovers her betrayal, she and John strike up a friendship. But will their relationship blossom in time for Tamarind’s metamorphosis to become permanent? And will she and John live happily ever after in the tradition of classic fairy tale characters?
Long fascinated by fairy tales, first-time novelist LeAnn Neal Reilly found herself at home with her children watching The Little Mermaid. Although she loved the music and animation, “it got under my skin,” she relates. As a married woman, Reilly knew that “the happily-ever-after still required work. I resented the implication that the young couple had already overcome all their problems and could sail off into the sunset.” So she read the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson and was surprised to learn that that mermaid sacrificed herself for love, but never got a chance to marry the prince, have children with him, or live a happily-ever-after, worry-free life with him in his castle.
Thus, Reilly re-imagined The Little Mermaid as a fairy tale told for adults in two parts. In Volume One, the mermaid and her beloved must overcome enormous obstacles on their way to the realization that they truly love each other and want to spent the rest of their lives together. In the case of John and Tamarind, they must consummate their love before the rainy season ends or else Tamarind will revert to being one of the mer people and have to return to her father, sisters, and Mother Sea.
Their adventure is nothing short of epic. It is difficult to believe that The Mermaid’s Pendant is Reilly’s first published novel because her writing is rich with detail and so exquisite that, as one reviewer noted, it becomes “lyrical” at times. The island of Culebra practically comes to life as Reilly describes the sand, sea, salt air, expansive horizon, island breezes . . . and even the cold beer served by Tomas in sweating bottles at the local restaurant.
I wanted to convince myself as much as anyone that reads it, that [love is] worthwhile in the end, but it is something you have to work at. You don’t go ride off into the sunset. . . . Once John and Tamarind can’t rely on magic, they have to work toward realistic solutions and re-discover they have love, commitment and family.~ Author LeAnn Neal Reilly
Not to mention the cast of island characters, including Ana, the witch posing as midwife whose constant behind-the-scenes machinations and incantations remain largely undetected by John, Tamarind or their good friend, Valorie, who owns the guest house where John takes up residence. It is Valorie who teaches Tamarind how to craft jewelry and gives her the moonstone that becomes the centerpiece of her goddess pendant. Tamarind comes to believe that the talisman possesses magical powers . . . and breathes life and strength into her relationship with John. She actually feels its power, as does John, which helps them survive Hurricane Marilyn, consummate their love in time for Tamarind to remain human, marry, and begin their new life together back in Pittsburgh where John continues working toward his doctorate.
What comes after “I do” is not traditionally revealed in fairy tales.
In Reilly’s Volume Two, the focus of the action shifts ahead four years to suburbia where John, Tamarind, and their two-year-old daughter, Sarah, take up residence. When John accepts a position with a start-up company, Dr2Dr, they purchase a home and become acquainted the day they move in with their neighbor across the street, Lucy. Widowed, Lucy has five grown children, numerous grandchildren, and a lot of time to spend visiting with and advising Tamarind. Of course, Zoe re-enters the scene, as well.
Tamarind discovers that, as the years pass, her mer capabilities and characteristics are diminishing. Mer people communicate via mental telepathy, reading each other’s thoughts. Because of the bond she forged with John when they consummated their love and her transformation became permanent, she was able to read his thoughts. But now, she finds that she no longer knows what he is thinking and she is afraid that he is keeping secrets from her, especially where his relationship with Zoe is concerned.
Corporate intrigue preoccupies John. That is the one aspect of the book that proved tedious, much of the narrative superfluous. Reilly should have compressed much of the information pertaining to John’s professional consternation because, although she devotes a great number of pages to explaining the source of the conflict in intricate detail, much of it detracts from, rather than adds to the main storyline, i.e., Tamarind’s sense that she and John have grown apart and her desire to understand how and why that happened. Worse, the issues are not fully resolved by the end of the book, leaving the reader who becomes intrigued by that sub-plot to wonder what ultimately happened to the company and the players.
Lucy’s family dramas revolving around her two daughters and their children, especially Olivia, are entertaining but, like the discussion of John’s corporate worries, could have been streamlined a bit in favor of a more intense exploration of Lucy’s lingering anger at her philandering husband, and the manner in which his unfaithfulness impacted her relationships with her children, especially her daughter, Rachel.
Those are small complaints, however, in comparison to the majestic scope and breadth of Reilly’s freshman work. Taking into account the time she took off in order to care for her young children, she spent 11 years crafting a tale in which the characters and plot developments are intricately intertwined, leaving the reader guessing and pushing forward through the pages to see if suspicions will be confirmed. Her painstaking effort to put a new spin on an old and very familiar story pays off, as Reilly deftly reveals just enough information to keep the reader’s interest piqued, but not so much that the suspense is lost.
Eventually, Ana’s scheming and spells threaten to tear apart the family that Tamarind and John have created which, by then, includes newborn son Adam. Tamarind resorts to desperate measures in order to assure herself that John loves and is devoted to her, and only her, putting herself at risk of losing everything to Ana.
As for John, he spends much of the book being confused by his myriad feelings for the women in his life, but there is never any doubt that he loves Tamarind from the first moment he sees her. It just takes him some time to figure out that they are meant to be together. In his defense, he does not realize the truth about Raimunda or that he is being manipulated into feeling a powerful physical attraction to Zoe. His heart is true, but he must learn to open himself up to Tamarind again, rather than fall prey to the everyday stresses that marriage and normalcy bring. After all, communication is the key to successful relationships. He finally understands that revealing the truth to Tamarind “in stages” will not do.
In one particularly poignant moment, as John is rushing to Tamarind’s side, he remembers the magic that drew them together, and contemplates the authentic and more mature love he has developed for her during his years as her husband:
She’d hidden in the water around Culebra flirting with him before showing herself. She’d worn a magical aspect a glamour, so that she could walk on land with him. She’d come to him at night, more substantial than a dream, once in San Juan and again in Pittsburgh. Her magic had crafted the Goddess pendant, the one that bound them together during Hurricane Marilyn. It had brought him to her rescue, it had kept her father from taking her back home., and it had lit their way during the blinding rain and dark.
Even as he remembered these surreal incidents, other, more powerful ones replayed themselves in his memory. Tamarind sweating and moaning in a hospital room as she walked in labor with Sarah, Tamarind above him as they made love, Tamarind nursing Adam early in the morning as he got ready for work. These too were magic bur far more real and substantial. Would he, if he could, trade all these experiences, and everything else in their lives, for one night in a bioluminescent Caribbean bay with a mythical woman. No, and he couldn’t wait to tell Tamarind so.
. . . “Falling in love with Tamarind was a kind of fairy tale. . . . I wanted the promise of happy-ever-after without the work.”
The book’s real strength lies in its portrayal of the archetypal female characters: Tamarind, the innocent, lovely ingenue who is quite literally a new person in a strange and unfamiliar world; Lucy, the wise and loving older woman who lends advice and support; Ana, the classic fairy tale wicked witch, casting spells designed to thwart the young lovers’ planned happy ending; and Valorie, the unconditionally supportive best friend, who also speaks plainly and provides sound advice when Tamarind stumbles. The four women each face challenges, battle tormenting demons, and want to find their own particular brand of peace and happiness. Even Ana, despite her dastardly plots, will tug at readers’ heart strings a bit. As with all fairy tale witches, it can’t be easy being Ana.
Will true love prevail? Will Tamarind learn that her beautiful goddess pendant prominently displaying the beloved moonstone given to her by her friend Valorie is but a symbol of the bond between her and John, but not the actual source from which the strength of their marriage flows? Will Ana finally reap what she has been sewing since long before John arrived in Puerto Rico and first encountered Tamarind?
Stated differently, will the fairy tale, as retold by Reilly, have a happy ending? You’ll have to read The Mermaid’s Pendant in order to find out!