Firstly, a warning: THERE ARE SPOILERS in this article, and so if you haven’t read The Pisces and are planning to do so, then stop here (well, not literally here, but stop reading after this sentence), and once you’ve read the book, come back for a visit and take a deep dive (inadvertent pun) into the story, characters, and themes.
Let’s start with the thumbnail sketch of the story: Lucy (our main character) sucks at love, or in the alternative, love sucks at her. She finds a breakthrough for her romance conundrum when she falls in love with Theo, a merman. He’s everything she wants from a man even if he’s a fish (and yes, he’s got the right man parts). They make plans for a future together despite obvious logistical issues. But it turns out that Theo was a false lead, thus the loving couple breaks up. And then Lucy’s sister’s beloved dog, Dominic (who Lucy was dog-sitting), dies. It may have been Lucy’s fault. The “nothingness” returns to Lucy, but this time, she takes ownership of it. The end.
Wow. I love happy endings.
Here’s the big question of the story: Is love, i.e., the romantic kind (as differentiated from the unconditional kind, such as a parent’s love for her child, or the love that a dog has for its owner and vice versa) ever really attainable in the ideal sense?
The answer, at least in part, may be found in one of the thematic through-lines of the story, which is Lucy’s work-in-progress dissertation (nine years and counting) concerning Sappho (the “it” poet of ancient Greece), specifically about the “spaces unspoken in her poems.” Lucy believes that the gaps in Sappho’s oeuvre were intentional. Though intriguing, Lucy admits that the dissertation is a “total garbage proposition.”
But does she really believe that? Can someone as smart and as self-aware as Lucy really dedicate nine years of her life researching and writing a dissertation if she truly thought it was garbage? What’s more probable is that she’s preoccupied (obsessed? tormented?) with the need to instill meaning to the void. In fact, she admits as much when she says, “I, myself, had a very complicated relationship with emptiness, blankness, nothingness. Sometimes I wanted only to fill it, frightened that if I didn’t it would eat me alive or kill me.”
For Lucy, her need to fill the emptiness is interpreted as finding the ideal love, and finding that love takes on a sort of a life-or-death, high-stakes objective. But Lucy’s issues aren't necessarily just the result of karmic forces working against her in finding happiness at love. Lucy herself is really great at self-sabotage.
The novel starts out with her suggesting to her boyfriend (of several years) that perhaps they should break up (mainly because she’s bored and wants to shake things up). But she doesn’t really mean it and just wants him to try to stop her. Mostly, she wanted to hear him say no. He takes the bait all right but not in the way she expected or wanted. The boyfriend agrees that they should split. Lucy regrets her plan right away but it’s too late.
And so the inciting incident (The Break-Up) has Lucy escaping the unpalatable situation in Phoenix to go dog-sit for her sister at her home in Venice Beach. The dog’s name is Dominic, a diabetic foxhound. Lucy’s sister, Annika, loves Dominic and dotes on him as if he were her precious child. It’s made clear that while Annika is away on her trip, Lucy is to take the utmost care of Dominic and that if any misfortune befell the dog, it would devastate Annika.
This setup is not just a plot device foreshadowing that Lucy will indeed mismanage the care of Dominic. The dog plays an important role in terms of the key theme of “pure love.” This theme butts heads over and over again with its thematic counterpart “fantasy love.” Dominic’s love for Lucy is unconditional, thus pure, regardless of the less-than-capable dog-sitting ability of Lucy.
Lucy’s search for quote-unquote a new love starts immediately once she lands in California despite the fact that she joins (per her sister’s demand) a therapy group for women with depression and sex/love issues. Via a dating app, Lucy goes on a couple dates. Because she builds up the expectations of what she wants the dates to be, she is, not surprisingly, disappointed when she meets and spends time with these men.
Lucy seems to know better but can’t help herself and so she soldiers on, hoping against hope, as they say, that things will turn out to be a romantic ideal. But it doesn’t. The sex is unromantic and terrible and there’s even a scene involving “mismatched” testicles. In one instance, she expects to be wooed in an upscale hotel room, but the guy has a fetish for doing “it” in the lobby restroom. Again, she’s disappointed, but soldiers on. The act is hurried and unsatisfying and she comes away with a urinary tract infection and the guy never contacts her again.
It’s as if she’s on a path to self-destruction in exchange for wanting to be loved. Hmmm. Didn’t see that coming. Maybe she should just stick to the therapy group and adhere to their cautionary guidance. But, no. Instead, she becomes smitten with Theo, the eye-candy merman. So what if he’s half fish? He’s got the proper appendage and is gorgeous and treats her with love and respect and he’s pretty great in the sack: caring, attentive, unselfish.
Theo is it, the ideal love Lucy’s been looking for. At last!
Not so fast. Because Dominic, the stand-in for the theme of pure love, isn’t having it. When Lucy transports Theo to Annika’s house so they can partake in carnal shenanigans on the couch instead of on the rocks at the beach, Dominic wants to tear the merman’s throat out. Why does the nice doggie hate Theo so much? It’s as if Dominic is sounding the alarm, waving the red flag, etc., trying to warn Lucy against falling for the fantastical, the unknowable, the fleeting, the momentary bliss, like the high of imbibing in drugs and/or alcohol (interestingly, addiction is also running theme in the story).
But does Lucy take heed of Dominic’s warning? No, of course not, because where’s the drama in that? Instead, Lucy sedates Dominic with tranquilizers anytime she brings Theo to the house, leaving the foxhound passed out for the duration. The thing is, Lucy doesn’t feel great about what she’s doing to Dominic, but she’s in denial and making excuses for why maybe it’s not so bad. Because, after all, Theo is the proverbial (mer)man of Lucy’s dreams and nothing’s gonna stop her from consummating this relationship.
In other words, she’s bamboozled by the shiny object aka the hot merman aka fantasy love, and it becomes all-consuming because it feeds her needs, and it’s human nature to be attracted to that shiny object, especially when reality is dull, unpolished, and at times, not so nice, painful in fact. It’s about self-preservation. So much so, that Lucy agrees to “run away” with Theo to live with him…underwater.
Because Lucy’s search for love is about saving herself, it necessitates her to be selfish. The brightness of the “shiny object” blinds her to the consequences of her selfish acts and there’s a price to be paid: Dominic’s death. The dog’s demise seems the likely result of Lucy cramming more and more tranquilizers down his throat (though Lucy wants to believe that it was because of Dominic’s diabetes). She tries to excuse her actions as having been in the benefit of Dominic but ultimately reckons with the truth, admitting, in essence, that Dominic (literally and symbolically) was in the way of her being able to “wander the labyrinth of my fantasy life.”
In the aftermath, Lucy’s sister, Annika, does not blame her for Dominic’s death. Instead, Annika asks Lucy to stay with her because she will be too lonely without Dominic. Although Lucy wants to stay and comfort Annika, the pull of fantasy love at this point is too strong for her to resist. And so Lucy goes to Theo.
The interesting thing about Lucy’s decision is that she’s not entirely sure what it means for her to follow Theo underwater. Does she somehow magically become able to live in the sea? Or is the act more symbolic, i.e., she will surely drown but her death will be a beautiful act in the service of a mythical love, maybe something like achieving nirvana in a way? She doesn’t know. And seems okay with the idea of annihilation, which is contradictory to her efforts at self-preservation. Why, though?
Because she feels as if there is no other acceptable choice and that this is the best option available. She could not now abandon her fantasy and return to the harsh reality. It’s all or nothing for Lucy at this juncture and if Theo is asking her to join him in eternal love, how can she refuse? Unfortunately, it turns out that Lucy is not the first for Theo. He admits that there have been seventeen other women who have fallen for his charms and followed him into the sea.
Now that Lucy doesn’t feel so special, she’s having second thoughts: “So he had a harem. Of what I was not sure. Maybe it was just their bones that were left, or whatever didn’t decay in the saltwater. I was not a scientist. But whether they were alive or dead, sand or flesh, I needed to maintain my singularity.”
This revelation is a metaphorical slap to the face for Lucy and she’s shaken out of her fantasy state of mind and makes the breakthrough leap in her character arc with the realization that the desire to be loved and needed was not such a bad thing, not weak or disgusting, and worth risking rejection for. She calls the idea “transformational.” Lucy ultimately admits that she hadn’t figured out what “love” is and recalls the words of Dr. Jude, the person heading the therapy group: “The question is not what is love, but is it really love I’m looking for?”
Does this mean Lucy’s given up on finding love? Probably not. She’s learned the value of “pure love,” such as that of Dominic (RIP), and of her sister, which can help to fill some of that nothingness. As for romantic/fantasy love, Lucy wonders why it can’t exist in the same space as pure love and is faced with the nothingness once again. But this time, she’s at peace with it:
“In a way it was kind of nice to be alone. The euphoria was gone and the silence was gone—those were Theo’s. In his place, some of the nothingness had clearly returned. But I felt different about it, like it was laughing with me or maybe I with it. It was my own nothingness to have and to hold.”
And so getting back to the big question of the story: Is romantic love ever really attainable in the ideal sense? Well, it depends on what one’s definition of an ideal love is. For Lucy, her ideal was a mythic man-fish, or so she thought, and so the answer for her is no, at least in the moment.
But the fact that things didn’t work out with Theo shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Because even though Lucy’s been to the edge and got to peek behind the curtain of fantasy love, so to speak, and didn’t find what she was looking for, maybe it’s okay because her perspective has shifted and she can now laugh at/with nothingness instead of being afraid of the perceived emptiness and the need to fill it with the high expectations achievable only in fantasy.
As for the moral of the story? If a hot merman starts making small talk and things turn flirty and there are mutual yearnings, just remember that he is a metaphor for the unattainable, cloaked in the fantastical, a siren luring you to the rocky shoals of emotional devastation and possibly death. But if you absolutely must, at least use protection for godssake.