book review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK by Imogen Hermes Gowar
★★★☆☆
Harper, September 11, 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, a historical novel set in 1780s London, follows Jonah Hancock, a merchant who finds himself in possession of a mermaid, and Angelica Neal, a courtesan whose protector has recently died. Their narratives intersect rather early on, and the novel mostly follows their relationship over a rather meandering 500 pages.

From the very first page, I wanted to love this book. I was struck instantly by Imogen Hermes Gowar’s prose, which is some of the best I think I’ve ever read in a contemporary novel. It’s poised, elegant, classical and lyrical all at once, with some of the most evocative setting descriptions I’ve ever read. Gowar brings the late 1700s to life in a way that I wouldn’t dare to minimize as I go on to discuss this novel’s flaws.

But I would be remiss not to mention that the pace and plotting were downright maddening. This is one of those books where nothing happens for 450 pages, and then everything happens in the last 50. It’s uneven, and for me, it wasn’t engaging enough to hold my attention throughout. Characters and their motivations also remained at arm’s length, with a questionable third person omniscient point of view which gave absolutely no rhyme or reason for its head hopping, following not only Jonah and Angelica, but a handful of other characters whose narratives were never fully developed. One of these characters in particular was Polly, a black courtesan whose storyline had absolutely no depth or insight or closure or anything remotely satisfying to read.

Again, I don’t want to downplay what an accomplishment Gowar’s writing is. If your main draw to a novel is rich, gorgeous prose, then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this. But if you’re looking for tight plotting and compelling characters, I can’t say that either of those is a real strength of this novel.

Thank you to Harper and Imogen Hermes Gowar for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

16 thoughts on “book review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

  1. Bummer. This one sounded intriguing to me, but summer is not the right season for 450 pages of pretty but plotless writing, no matter how attracted I am to the cover. I think I will still end up reading some of the Women’s Prize shortlist (When I Hit You is currently on its way to me, The Idiot looks promising, and Home Fire especially interests me now that it’s won) but I think I’ll take this one off my TBR for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! For the most part I am not a seasonal reader, but this is a winter book if I ever saw one. I think part of my problem was that I just wasn’t in the mood for something meandering and atmospheric but I pushed myself to read it before the winner was announced.

      I really hope you enjoy When I Hit You and Home Fire, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! The pacing was a total disaster which was such a shame because there is so much to recommend this book if you love historical fiction set in London. Also, another commenter pointed out that it doesn’t sound like a good summer book and I completely agree – I’m usually not too much of a seasonal reader but this is strictly a winter book if I’ve ever seen one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have never really thought about the seasons when reading, but I started earlier today when I began looking at July releases and saw 78647432 thrillers and mysteries! Interesting and something I will probably pay attention to now.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been thinking about it more recently – I think long, meandering books like this are just so well suited to curling up by the fireplace, and thrillers are definitely more beach reads. For the most part I’m not too motivated by seasonal reading, but something about reading a 500 page sprawling Georgian-set novel in the summer just wasn’t doing it for me.

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    • I’m glad I’m not alone in being underwhelmed! Ugh, Polly’s narrative in particular was one of my biggest disappointments – I really didn’t understand why Gowar thought it was a good idea to introduce that story if she wasn’t prepared to follow through with it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, same! I was so excited by the inclusion of a mixed race courtesan and was looking forward to that story being told, and then it just… wasn’t? It leaves me to puzzle over her role in the story, I really hope there’s more to it that I just didn’t pick up on than Gowar patting herself on the back for a half-baked ‘life was hard for black women too!’ message.

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