It’s hard to know where to find love in the digital age—on Tinder, by way of some reality TV competition, sticking it out through a string of disappointing dates, or, perhaps, in some kind of old fashioned meet-cute. There’s the high of the chase, the letdown of consummation, and the familiar wait for a post-date text. It’s all a bit undignified. And yet by some sleight of hand, this is the very stuff Melissa Broder, a writer who has already shown a penchant for exploring and even extolling indignities with her poetry and her essay collection So Sad Today, spins into a lyrical myth in her debut novel, The Pisces.
Enter Lucy. Out in the desert of Arizona, she’s lost passion for her long-term, noncommittal boyfriend Jaime, and for her dissertation on Sappho. Her sister offers her an escape hatch from these two dead-end love affairs—an invitation to house sit and watch over her beloved dog, Dominic in Los Angeles while she’s out of the country enjoying “the comfort of couplehood” with her husband. Lucy isn’t sure whether to envy or pity the comforts of their marriage, but she accepts.
The rarefied atmosphere of Los Angeles becomes the backdrop for Lucy’s attempts at recovery from her self-diagnosed addiction to filling up her loneliness, usually with men. She tries out every fad: attending group therapy sessions for “women with depression, and sex and love issues,” buying new age crystals, pledging to a ninety-day dating detox. Broder captures the self-deceptive treatment plans for the group’s women, who each begin “self-care” regimens to establish intimacy with themselves, with a fond satire that lends dignity to their obsessions.
But it is the appearance of a mysterious swimmer on the rocks with feminine features and an outdated chivalry that truly gives the book its tension. His name is Theo, and without a cell phone or an Internet connection, the only way for Lucy to meet him is by waiting each night down by the shore for him to appear. It’s got that old-fashioned romantic feeling of Romeo and Juliet meeting in the garden, and their chaste late-night conversations set the novel at a simmer.
Even with Theo in her life, Lucy can’t bring herself to quit dating cold turkey. She creates a Tinder account and goes on dates with men who are familiar in their self-absorption, their inability to get her off, and their way of always texting her back in direct disproportion to how much she cares. Broder is a pro at writing cringe-worthy sex scenes that explore the boundaries of consent, but her true talent is documenting the unsung anxious rituals that sometimes surround dating, from buying a new outfit under the adoring gaze of a sales clerk to getting a bikini wax (“…when the waxer—a bosomy woman named Kristina—saw my vagina, she started yelling. “Too much hair! Too much hair.”) to cleaning out her bowels with her bare hands.
The novel vacillates between the artificial high of these dates and the steady, daily intimacy of the time Lucy spends scooping Dominic’s poop, and simply showing up to talk with Theo at the water’s edge. Incapable of doing anything halfway, Lucy throws herself wholeheartedly into one or the other, stacking one date on top of another, and then rushing home to recommit to the dog and only the dog. It’s impossible not to wonder which way of life will win out, and whether the decision rests in Lucy’s hands. The answers would be a spoiler, and the novel’s true beauty lies in the mishaps that occur along the way.
Lucy describes herself as “almost compulsively confessional.” While she is always lying to her group mates about her dating detox and to her sister about how often she leaves the dog home alone to go on dates, it’s with us, the readers, that she is actually able to unleash the full barrage of her every worry and vulnerability. It would be easy to dismiss Lucy as a foil for Broder and to write them both, author and character alike, off as insufferable. Lucy’s uncomfortable confessions match Broder’s essay collection So Sad Today in their frantic key, and some of the novel’s dialogue even matches the conversations she documents in her nonfiction. Lucy doesn’t have a job and can hardly uphold her two commitments in LA—dog sitting and attending group therapy. How can her worries fill an entire novel? Yet Broder has Lucy confess to the things so many of us spend our lives trying to hide—fretting over the state of our pubes, yearning for love—that it is a relief to see them finally reflected back on the page.
Lucy longs for a love as epic as the Greek myths she studies, one stripped of the mundane frustrations of modern dating, but what Broder has given her instead is a celebration of these indignities, a myth of her own making. Where stories like “Cat Person” remind us that technology has made it harder than ever to connect, Broder opens up a fantastical vein to offer a glimpse at how we might find each other again. Like her poetry and her essays, her first foray into fiction shows that she is unashamed to look directly at how unflattering desire can make us and how unruly our bodies can be, all to reassure us that we aren’t, after all, alone.