American Mermaid

Julia Langbein

Quick Synopsis

A brilliantly funny debut novel that follows a writer lured to Los Angeles to adapt her feminist mermaid novel into a big-budget action film, who believes her heroine has come to life to take revenge for Hollywood’s violations.

Publisher’s Synopsis

Broke English teacher Penelope Schleeman is as surprised as anyone when her feminist novel American Mermaid becomes a best-seller. Lured by the promise of a big payday, she quits teaching and moves to L.A. to turn the novel into an action flick with the help of some studio hacks. But as she’s pressured to change her main character from a fierce, androgynous eco-warrior to a teen sex object in a clamshell bra, strange things start to happen. Threats appear in the screenplay; siren calls lure Penelope’s co-writers into danger.  Is Penelope losing her mind, or has her mermaid come to life, enacting revenge for Hollywood’s violations?

American Mermaid follows a young woman braving the casual slights and cruel calculations of a ruthless industry town, where she discovers a beating heart in her own fiction, a mermaid who will fight to move between worlds without giving up her voice. A hilarious story about deep things, American Mermaid asks how far we’ll go to protect the parts of ourselves that are not for sale.

Book Review

American Mermaid is a story about a high school English teacher, Penelope, who writes a novel about a disabled woman, Sylvia, who discovers she is a mermaid. When Penelope’s book is optioned for a movie, she moves to LA to adapt her book with two seasoned male screenwriters.

In the beginning, I found American Mermaid to be a delightfully feminist read. I was disappointed to find that the feminist themes were lost as the book continued. I felt like Langbein abandoned any feminist notions that had been present. Ultimately, Penelope failed to be the feminist hero I was hoping she would prove to be.

American Mermaid utilizes an embedded narrative, or story within a story. The novel alternates between telling Penelope’s narrative and excerpts from her novel about Sylvia. I think Julia Langbein pulled off this literary device. It was easy to follow which story was being told and made the entire narrative better.

However, I was left wishing that American Mermaid had simply been Sylvia’s story (Penelope’s book) rather than a tale about Penelope. Sylvia’s story was fascinating, complex, and emotional while tackling a range of issues. On the other hand, the overall novel was a story of a writer trying to make it in vapid, monied L.A. and floundering. The narrative glossed over Penelope’s internal struggles and personal relationships in favor of strange experiences influenced by alcohol. Having the two stories side-by-side highlighted the missed opportunities and lack of excitement in the main narrative. I found Penelope to be a bore who just stressed me out with her often poor decision making. When it became apparent how the book would play out, I gave up on Penelope and stayed for Sylvia’s story. But if you are looking for a novel about a floundering millennial in L.A. who wrote a fabulous feminist novel that she is trying to adapt to the big screen, this is definitely the book.

That being said, I did really enjoy Langbein’s writing. It balanced dark themes with humor. The novel was legitimately funny at times.

Overall, I wanted to love American Mermaid more than I did. I was left with mixed feelings about the overall reading experience. I do recommend it, if it sounds appealing to you, as it is a unique story.


Overall Rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4 out of 5.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Character Development

Rating: 3 out of 5.

American Mermaid


Contemporary Fiction

Publication Date
March 21, 2023


Storygraph Rating
3.98 stars

Goodreads Rating
3.72 stars

Buy Now

Note: I received a gifted copy of this book from its publisher, Doubleday Books. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.

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