Alice At Heart
by Deborah Smith, contemporary/fantasy (2002)
BelleBooks, $14.95, ISBN 0-9673035-2-4


Alice At Heart is the first of the Waterlilies series, about a family of Southern mermaid women. Like most of this author's recent works, it features first person narration when it comes to the heroine's point of view, and third person when it comes to everything else. If you're familiar with this author's works, you may know what to expect in Alice At Heart: bittersweet honeyed/poisonous love that has our main characters slowly bleeding to death even as they find healing and redemption. It's a beautiful sort of paradox, and on a fine day, Ms Smith can make the whole poetry of her love stories sing.

In Alice At Heart, however, she overplays her hand, dealing me so many scenarios of the Bonavendier mermaids whipping themselves and ripping their hearts out in some melodramatic "Look at me! I AM SUFFERING!" nonsense that my reaction is more often me rolling my eyes up - "Oh for goodness sake!" - rather than me sighing in pleasure.

Alice Bonavendier is a lost mermaid. See, her mother was seduced by a mermaid guy sixty years her senior (don't ask, especially since some women I know still think Sean Connery's the sexiest guy alive, I don't know why - but hey, if they think a bear rug of grey/white curls over wrinkled terrain is sexy, to each her own) and then that selfish SOB kills himself (he is mourning over his dead wife or some rot), and then the stupid woman dies, leaving Alice in the care of some nasty relatives that never let her forget what an abomination she is.

Alice, having inherited the gene for self-flagellation from her parents, live a sad, sad life of an ugly duckling with ten times the bullied factor. Even when she saves the kid of some important dude, she ends up becoming the prime suspect. Good thing her aunt Lilith hears her song (don't ask, it's a whale/dolphin thing) and the three aunts Lilith, Mara, and Pearl have finally come to collect lost lil' Alice home.

Meanwhile, Alice and this guy Griff share some mental bonding thing, which mainly consists of he and she telephatically (think: italically) speaking, comforting, and reassuring each other in time of need. But his old coot CA is Mara's ex and Mara and CA didn't part in friendly terms. More damning is that Griff believes that Alice's aunts are responsible for his parents' death in a boating accident one stormy night.

It could have been a fine story, and for about 100 pages, I can believe that. I ache for Alice, who is truly an ugly duckling that is being bludgeoned to death if she doesn't become a swan, or maybe a manatee in this context, soon. Okay, not a manatee. Um... a seal? Okay, a cute sea mammal. But I think manatees are cute. Oh, forget it.

But oh, the Bonavendier women! I have never seen such a tragic lot who seems to choose the path of most suffering with every decision they make. When the aunts come to rescue Alice, would you believe that her initial reaction is to turn them away? Okay, that is quite understandable, in that same way, sometimes there are prisoners of war, long cooped up in the dark, that refuse to leave their cell because they fear the light. (I read that in some hoity-toity "serious" fiction book of my hubby by the way.) But what happens next is quite depressing.

Lilith is suffering from lost love. Pearl is suffering, although her story actually has some potential to be the happiest ever after. Mara is also suffering, and worse, she's bitter. Alice, of course, is also suffering. Griff is suffering. CA is suffering. That middle-east mermaid princey ex of Lilith is also, no doubt, suffering. Suffer, suffer, suffer, because they are so in love but they know they can't be together.

Lilith's ex is now a widower. But she knows she can't be with him! She just can't! Suffer.

Mara has a second chance with CA. But they can't! Because she can't! And he can't! Suffer, suffer.

Alice and Griff. Oh, spare me.

Alice asks her aunts whether they really killed Griff's parents. Instead of a simple "No dear" or "Yes dear", they launch into some, meandering litany of the importance of trust ("You must trust us blah blah blah"), martyrhood, and something more that I can't catch from the gushing of blood from my eyes and nose and ears. Alice, understandably, runs away, suffering, and the remaining aunts stand back in stoic suffering.

Suffer, suffer, suffer.

Oh, what I wouldn't give to have these losers attend a motivation and self-esteem seminar. Burn all those Byronesque rubbish in the library, stock up some Anais Nin instead, and let's build an adult cinema on that Bonavendier island! We need some love and understanding, people, like the great Kate Bush preaches. Altogether now:

"Man I think it's gonna be a long, long time/'Til touchdown brings me round again to find/I'm not the man they think I am at home/Ah no, no, no/I'm a rocket man/Burnin'!/Burnin' up his fuel/Up here alone..."

Oops, wrong song, but hey, whatever, eh?

Rating: 64


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