Book Review: Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli

Sirena (1998) is a YA novel by Donna Jo Napoli about a mermaid from Ancient Greece. Well-researched and keeping tightly in line with ancient mythology, this haunting, heartbreaking romance is perfect for lovers of Greek myths. Told in the first person, present tense, Napoli writes in beautiful, concise prose to describe the tragic life of Sirena, a mermaid.

Contrary to what the Greeks believed, in Sirena’s tale, mermaids were simply desperate and eager for the company of human men – their coupling with whom would grant the mermaids immortality. The sirens never intended to bring the men to shipwreck, destruction and death. But due to a deadly misunderstanding with the sailors Sirena and her sisters encounter, Sirena retreats to the lonely, abandoned island of Lemnos for a life of solitude. She fears men and their attitudes toward her kind, and never wishes to seduce one.

But when a Greek prince, Philoctetes, is deserted on the shore of Lemnos with a severe injury, Sirena takes to caring for him. Philoctetes is masculine and charming – I instantly fell in love with him, as does Sirena. But is their love doomed? Can a human, who loves human possessions and longs to play a part in a life of valor and honor, remain instead on a desert isle, even with the love of a beautiful mermaid? And can Sirena, when she gains immortality through their coupling, bear losing him as he ages and shall inevitably die?

This is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve read in a long time. Sirena and Philoctetes’ love is so strong and sad at the same time. I really felt for what Sirena was going through, and I loved the Greek myth & magic interwoven into their worlds. I admired that, while there was some gorgeously-written sexual tension, Napoli made a pointed effort to convey that the value of the man and mermaid’s relationship wasn’t only lust and seduction, but true, pure love. The book ended on a cliffhanger which positively TANTALIZED me…! But I love it and its simple yet haunting prose. I couldn’t put it down, and read it all in a day.

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