Author Melissa Broder was reading The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa on Venice Beach when a question struck her: Why are the tormented love stories of sea creatures and humans always between a mermaid and a man? What if she swapped the gender roles and placed the story in California in the present?
Thus, The Pisces was born. In Broder’s first novel, 38-year-old Lucy moves to Venice Beach to housesit and watch a diabetic fox hound for her half-sister over the summer while working out the kinks in her Sappho dissertation. Lucy is fresh off a breakup with her geologist boyfriend and new to an all-female therapy group. Lucy tries to unravel her love addiction issues with that cohort but ends up seeking demeaning sex with shallow men on Tinder instead. One night, while walking on the beach, she encounters a merman named Theo. They fall for one another but struggle to overcome the obvious obstacle to their love—he cannot survive on land; she will die underwater.
Broder wrote the novel following her 2016 personal essay collection So Sad Today and her fourth book of poetry Last Sext. After moving to Los Angeles four-and-a-half years ago, she found herself spending ample time driving, so she dictated three pages a day in the car. Within nine months, she had a first draft. Initially, the longtime poet worried that the manuscript wasn’t readable, but early buzz has already proved her wrong. The Pisces is a bold and brutally honest take on modern relationships, mental health issues, and existential angst.
Though Broder insists she and Lucy are not one and the same, the emotional sucker punch of The Pisces is drawn from her real life. At the time she started writing the book, Broder was grieving the loss of a relationship that began during her open marriage; when she confessed to her husband that she’d fallen in love with her paramour, the couple decided she should end the relationship and reembrace monogamy. “I was really mourning this whole way of life and I felt that I had to do something with it,” Broder says. “It was too painful to sit with. The Pisces was born out of that. I still had a lot of questions, as to: Why is it that so many of the great loves in art are things that our therapists would be like, ‘Stay away from that?’ ”
Pain and pleasure intersect often in The Pisces. At times, sex seems like the solution to Lucy’s depression; at other times, it is its cause. “It certainly seemed like the human instinct to get high on someone else, an external entity who could make life more exciting and relieve you of your own self, your own life, even for just a moment,” Broder writes. Lucy frantically attempts to fill the void, eventually realizing that the closest thing to satiation is the sisterhood of group therapy and a relationship with her half-sister.
Broder herself has grappled with the elusiveness of enough. “Anything that feels delicious can appear to be the answer,” she says. “For depression, personally, I want out of that feeling, so I’m going to look for whatever provides a stimulus, even if it’s an ephemeral stimulus and even if I’ve been there before, knowing that it’s not lasting and that on the other side is more depression.” That stimulus used to take the form of alcohol; Broder is now 13 years sober. Her vices have since taken tamer forms, from Nicorette to Twitter to Coke Zero.
At its core, The Pisces explores how people often choose a fantasy version of love over the real thing, even though both forms can cause immense suffering. “So much of what our lovers do and say is imagined,” Broder writes. “We turn them into who we want them to be. We fill in their bodies and words for them.”
That ability to transform what is into what could be isn’t all bad, however. In the case of Broder’s depression, rewriting life has been a conduit for healing. “With writing, you get to control the narrative, which is really cool ‘cause sometimes in our lives and in our minds, we don’t get to control the narrative,” she says. “I’ve tried many things to put me in the flow, so to speak, and to elevate and find meaning and weave my suffering into something higher. Eventually, they’ve all sort of come back around and tried to kill me. Writing is the only one that hasn’t.”
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and the author of Insatiable: A Young Mother's Struggle with Anorexia.