Book Review: American Mermaid by Julia Langbein

Fun, hilarious, and full of surprises!

JULIA LANGBEIN, a sketch and standup comedian for many years, holds a doctorate in Art History and is the author of a non-fiction book about comic art criticism (Laugh Lines, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2022). She wrote the viral comedy blog The Bruni Digest (2003-7), which reviewed New York Times critic Frank Bruni’s restaurant reviews every week and has since written about food, art, and travel for Gourmet, Eater, Salon, Frieze, and other publications. A native of Chicago, she lives outside of Paris with her family.

Penelope Schleeman quits her job as a teacher and moves from Connecticut to LA to co-write the screenplay of her novel, American Mermaid. But her dreams quickly fade when the two screenwriters she’s been paired with to adapt the novel try to scrap the elements that mean the most to her. Meanwhile, she’s advised by her agent to attend Hollywood parties and rub shoulders with creative types to broaden her connections in the industry. Her story is interlaced between chapters of her novel in which Sylvia Granger, an androgynous eco-warrior mermaid, is wheelchair-bound after her adoptive parents split her tail as a baby in order to keep her true identity a secret from her. When she attempts to commit suicide by diving into the ocean, her legs fuse together revealing she has special mermaid powers and propels her on a revenge mission against her father for perpetuating a lie.

This book was a fun change compared to the gritty thrillers I usually read. The idea of a vengeful mermaid taking on her fictitious father and a team of Hollywood executives for trying to kill her on the page made me laugh. I liked that Penelope (or Penny), the protagonist, is a writer and finds success when the movie rights to her book are sold. I also enjoy stories set in Hollywood and it was entertaining to learn about the industry parties and strange introductions she madeincluding the eccentric fictional screenwriter, Dick Babbot, who eventually ends up being hired to bring ‘fresh eyes’ to the script following the attack of her two screenwriting colleagues by her main character. Langbein’s writing is whip-smart and hilarious, creating a strong feminist narrator in Penny as she navigates toxic corporate culture. A scene I can’t shake is when she goes swimming and ends up being dragged out to sea by a riptide before being rescued by a lifeguard and pulled back to shore. Later on, she considers that maybe it was the work of Sylvia, as a warning for Penelope to protect her story from being butchered.

I always enjoy novels about writers, revenge, and quirky characters. The chapters between Penny and the industry bros were hilarious, especially the text messages in which they discuss the script vs the novel. Some of the comments exchanged were vile and cringe-worthy, but they breathed life into the characters revealing an uglier side to Hollywood that not everyone is aware of. Penny’s novel and its main character, Sylvia, mirrored her own life in parts but I still felt it lacked in connecting the two. I would have liked a deeper understanding of Penny’s background and family, especially details of her own strained relationship with her father. Aside from that, I really enjoyed the book including the ending, when Penny’s success as a screenwriter is revealed.


For readers who enjoy a book within a book, compelling characters, and hilarious dialogue.

Published March 21st, 2023


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.

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