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Cover of novel Mothers of the Missing Mermaid

Book Club
Reader's Guide

Literature educator
Dr. Michelle Taylor-Sherwin closely read the novel and provided her own in-depth interpretations of the story, characters, and themes. 

What is the significance of the title, Mothers of the Missing Mermaid
The title leaves room for readers to consider not only Bea, the “Missing Mermaid,” but also her “Mothers” as main characters, a move that perfectly aligns with Bradley’s multiple storylines. The title also reveals that, at its root, the story is about motherhood. Bradley shows that motherhood is a very complex relationship—one that is not only reserved for mothers. It is our “Missing Mermaid” who is on the search for truth in the shape of a mother and a family who might be missing her while Kate, one of her mothers, quite literally gives up her life in order to mother her niece that she adored.

In addition to motherhood as a prominent theme in the novel, what additional themes are present in the novel? What is the effect of these themes on the story itself? 
There are several themes that Bradley highlights in her novel: forgiveness, duty/responsibility, and identity. First and foremost, forgiveness seems to be at the cornerstone of all maternal/daughter relationships in Mothers of the Missing Mermaid. Bea struggles with forgiving Kate. Not only is she contending with the discovery of her mother’s cancer, but she also learns that her mom is not her biological mother. The simultaneous discovery of such earth-shattering news, all before she leaves for college, is devastating to say the least. Imogene, who lost both her best friend and her daughter one desperate night, turns to her faith as a vehicle through which to forgive Kate, or as she knows her, Ellen. What really helps Imogene to finally forgive Kate is spending time with her friend while she sits in jail who then finally renders a long-awaited apology. In a sense, it is Kate not only asking her friend for forgiveness, which she receives, but she also seeks to forgive herself for the pain she caused Imogene and her family. The ending of the novel showcases a realistic future in which Imogene and Kate may enjoy together their granddaughter, a new mermaid. 
Furthermore, duty and responsibility are, in a sense, tied to identity as central themes. For instance, Kate considers it her responsibility to save Bea from a life of neglect. To see this responsibility through, she steals Bea and creates a life in Destin, Florida. Imogene also sees her identity as a mother. While she struggles to find the balance between wife and mother, she loses sight of her own intrinsic identity; though, she does appear to find herself once Bea stays in her life. In the end, Bradley makes it clear that through forgiveness, duty, responsibility, and identity, we see proud and determined women who are also mothers, revealing to readers a multifaceted and complex cast of characters. 

 

How does the author contend with the different settings & decades throughout the novel?

What is the effect of this movement for the reader? 

Through a crisscross effect of mother and daughter, Bradley centers each character at the forefront of a particular decade. When transporting readers back in time to the 1970s, Kate recounts her journey from Illinois to Florida with a young Bea. In the 1990s in Destin, Florida, Bea navigates our descent into a family secret fraught with child kidnapping, lies, and scandal. By moving through the different decades, readers discover character intentions in the moment and character development in the future. In other words, we see both where Kate and Bea came from and where they are going which is an in-depth journey for the reader

Q&A with the author

Literature educator Dr. Michelle Taylor-Sherwin, asks the author questions about the novel, the writing process, and the challenges of this story. 
photo of the author

MSR: What inspired this story of Bea, our “mermaid”? 
BB: I guess that started back when I moved to Atlanta several years ago. I’d brought a newborn with me and we were totally broke. I wasn’t working but my husband was and my older child was in school all day. It was me and this baby boy for at least eight hours a day. I knew no one—no friends or family to help out—which meant wherever I went, this baby went with me. I wondered if this would mean we would have a close relationship when he got older. I started thinking about something my mother told me. She had been a teen mom and she always said that she and my brother “grew up together”. I was also watching a lot of Gilmore Girls at the time, and I got fixated on this idea of a child who would be completely spoiled with love but not money. That was Bea. And to have Bea, I had to consider how that could even be possible. I spent days playing the “what if” game and eventually came up with Kate.

MSR: Which character or moment in the novel prompted the strongest emotional reaction for you to write? Why?
BB: I guess Which emotion? would be the question I have. I think you might be asking about tearful maybe, but often when I develop scenes, I think about things that make me laugh. The one that makes me laugh or at least amuses me the most, is when Bea goes to her mother’s house for the first time. Her biological mother has other kids who share a little bit of Bea's attitude. I am also amused writing children who are bratty or stubborn or have an unearned sense of self-assurance. When Bea visits her biological mother’s home for the first time, she is standing at the doorstep being sized up by a Lucky-Charms-eating, mini version of herself. I don’t know … I guess I like writing kids. 
There were times when writing this story was incredibly difficult. The scene where Kate calls home the first time and she’s ready to admit she’s been defeated by Bea’s ear infection. That brought up a lot of emotions. As well as the scene where the marshalls allow Kate and Bea to see each other before they take Kate to prison. It’s a whole lot of sadness and anger and blame that spills into the lobby between Bea and Imogene. Bea is completely lost without Kate. 
But the sections that were the hardest to write – like avoiding writing them until I had to push through my roadblocks – were the prolonged sexual harassment with Lester. I knew I had to write those scenes, that they were necessary, but also dreaded every morning writing session when that was the assignment.

MSR: In addition to motherhood as a central theme, what additional themes do you think are the most important for readers to consider? 
BB: I wasn’t thinking much of themes when I was writing it. It’s always a sense of “this needs to happen next” forward movement. But now that it’s complete, I think this story has a lot to say about class and the choices people make to get by. I think it’s about family and chosen families. I think it’s about the complicated nature of female friendships. Young women now are so fortunate because they create these strong friendship circles and keep them. I grew up where you had one good friend if you were lucky. Female friendships often moved in and out of your life depending on many factors like employment, education, marriage, children, and other life changes. The scenes with Kate and Imogene growing up were similar to many of the relationships I saw growing up: these young women were on your block or at your school – they were around—but you never considered them a “friend”. You never considered them as anything. In the scene where Imogene writes Kate and tells her “We were friends”, Kate is legitimately questioning “Were we?” because she always felt used by Imogene; seeing herself as merely a vehicle Imogene used to get to her brother, Donnie. But taking a step back, Kate could see they were like friends in denial. When I first started writing this, I was also reading a lot of Margaret Atwood, whose novels like The Robber Bride, Cat's Eye, even The Handmaid's Tale present female friendships as important and precious but also full of betrayal.
 

MSR: Was there ever a different ending for the novel? If so, what was it?
BB: No. This was always the ending. I knew it would end with Kate leaving the prison to be with Bea and Imogene would be there as well. The only change was the addition of Bea’s daughter, Jess. Bea having a child was not part of the original outline, but when it emerged, it was perfect because Imogene would be the one to help her and be the grandmother while Kate is separated from them. It ended up being an interesting turn of the tables.
 

MSR: Upon publication of your debut novel, was there anything you would change? Why or why not?
BB: Every morning I wake up thinking I need to change something, tweak something, or revisit something. Honestly having it published means I am forced to set it free. Which is hard. But it is necessary. I could probably tinker with a novel forever. It's an excellent place to hide. But I am so excited to be working on a new story with new characters, new settings, new problems … a whole new world to build!
 

MSR: What did you learn most from writing this book? 
BB: I learned to trust my instincts. This was a novel that was read, and workshopped, and reread … after a while all the feedback comes across as gospel, like I must make these changes even if they feel contradictory to what I am trying to accomplish. I learned a lot from those workshops and I think the novel is stronger because of it. In the end, I have to remember that it’s my name on it and I have to be able to stand behind the product as my vision and not anyone else’s.

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