Maybe a Mermaid comes out in March, and middle-grade readers of contemporary fiction will enjoy this one. It’ll be a good spring break and summer read.
FSG, March 2019.
Middle-grade Fiction, 288pp.
ARC thanks to FSG and Netgalley
Eleven-year-old Anthoni Gillis grew up hearing her mother Carrie’s memories of Thunder Lake and the Showboat Resort. It was a magical place that Anthoni was eager to experience herself. The Showboat Resort is not magical in that it promises fairies or mermaids, or even X-Men-level mutants; it was a place where True Blue Friends were found and made.
As a sales rep and team leader for Beauty and the Bee products, Anthoni’s Mom moves them around frequently and it has been difficult for Anthoni to make friends, let alone a friend who will remember her after she’s gone. A summer vacation at the Showboat Resort sounds like just the thing both Anthoni and her mom could use. Besides the promise of a True Blue Friend, a vacation at the Showboat resort means their business goals have been met. They can relax from the hustle.
“Mom never waited for magic to come to her. She made her own.”
Maybe a vacation will offer Carrie a reprieve from having to turn every new person she meets & old friend she has into a client or, even more necessary, a colleague. And maybe a vacation at Thunder Lake will offer Anthoni an opportunity to see her mom in a different way: someone who is less about ‘sticking to the plan’ than previously believed. Only ‘sticking to the plan’ is a good and necessary thing in Anthoni’s mind. Stability and comfort is found in writing and implementing business plans. (I totally have a friend or three like this). Anthoni has her own plan for how to achieve her goal of a True Blue Friend.
Needless to say, Anthoni’s business plan is not fail-proof. That list of what she’s looking for in a friend and how she is going to go about making a friend are going to meet interference. That beautiful book cover image should have a girl in a sparkling bathing suit, and there should be absolutely no mermaids—because Anthoni is not about Mermaids, or even Maybes.
“Gillis Girls Don’t Believe in Maybe.”
The Gillis Girls have a lot of declarations between them that read like motivational posters. The statements integrated into Anthoni’s narrative and narration add an unexpected form of whimsy, especially when they are maybe revealed as much a form of fantasy as any other tale told in Maybe a Mermaid. The owner of The Showboat Resort, Charlotte Boulay, would say that people will believe what they need to believe—and it’s all in the sale’s pitch. She would also, quite bitterly, suggest that there is no such thing as a True Blue Friend.
The problem is, that while Anthoni could’ve used a friend before vacation, she could really use one now that things with her mom and their life come under serious strain. Anthoni can’t afford much more uncertainty, and she takes a page from her observations of her mother: she will make her own magic. In order to be True Blue Friends with Maddy Quinn, she’ll need more than a common obsession with X-Men comic books. She’ll need to discover the secret of the Boulay Mermaid and hope she’s as real as Maddy believes her to be.
The Boulay Mermaid was part of the vaudeville world of the early 20th century. The Showboat has countless photographs of acts on its walls from back when the resort hosted performances. The Boulay’s were actors and creators in vaudeville. Cameron does quick, light work bringing this bit of history to the fore. And, of course, it will provide common ground between the eccentric Charlotte Boulay and an earnest Anthoni Gillis. They both traveled with their working parents; both of their parents selling one-of-a-kind opportunities—one for beauty products, the other entertainment. Charlotte understood Anthoni’s loneliness.
Cameron writes plenty of quirky traits for her characters, but Charlotte is by far the oddest. She’s startling, but Charlotte proves carefree enough, risky enough to relieve the tension built into all the other characters. She is the vaudeville act that offsets the “real world” anxieties. Every character of any significance in Maybe a Mermaid is in some kind of conflict. They could all do with the idea of possibility; that there is a possibility of something more, of something else; that magic does exist. A mermaid would affirm something for Maddy, just as a friend would affirm something for Anthoni.
That Charlotte Boulay is also very human is an important realization for Anthoni to make. There’s the person we are, and the one we want to be seen as. There is the Anthoni who cannot swim and should be with the small children learning to blow-bubbles in the water, and there is the one wearing a sparkling swimsuit splashing around with the big kids, able and unafraid to swim in the lake. There is the Anthoni who can genuinely appreciate a vampiric mermaid comic, but cannot believe a mermaid actually exists in the lake—but who will say she does to get the friend she wants (the friends she believes she needs). It’s harmless until it isn’t.
Anthoni will risk a true friendship, risk another’s dignity, and risk her own life, to prove herself worthy and gain a friend. Wow, that sentence makes this middle grade novel seem darker than it is. Cameron delivers light and warmth in DJ’s efforts at camouflage despite his clumsiness and his arm in a cast; Julie’s colorful and energetic presence; Maddy’s wall art and water ski skills among other textured characterizations that add an earnestness that’s heart-warming and sweetly heart-aching.
Maybe a Mermaid will get to the bottom of how much grit and magic is required to ease the harder edges of real life and what is true blue in any relationship. And Anthoni will find herself with maybe more than a single friend to remember her.
That Cameron will write an unlikely friendship into a middle grade novel is hardly rare, what is noteworthy is how she goes about it. The clumsy, sweet, and intensely loyal DJ and Chapter 35 are anticipated, regardless at how heartwarming the effect. But that Epilogue is the clincher, that smile of delight that is the wink to the wave farewell.
That this is Cameron’s debut novel is a delight, because it is a seriously strong first offering. She’ll be one to watch.
Recommended for readers of contemporary fiction; of friendship stories; of Kate DiCamillo, Erin Kelly Estrada, Barbara O’Connor. Its a good addition to stories involving single parents as well as frequent changes in address.
And yes, Gilmore Girls might have come to mind with this one.