When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal

Sometimes I take a chance on a book when the deal is right. That’s what happened with the Amazon Charts best seller When We Believed in Mermaids Amazon Kindle  or Audiobook (AbeBooks) The premise intrigued me, and the price was right, so I bought it based off the book description alone.

From the publisher: “Her sister has been dead for fifteen years when she sees her on the TV news…

Josie Bianci was killed years ago on a train during a terrorist attack. Gone forever. It’s what her sister, Kit, an ER doctor in Santa Cruz, has always believed. Yet all it takes is a few heart-wrenching seconds to upend Kit’s world. Live coverage of a club fire in Auckland has captured the image of a woman stumbling through the smoke and debris. Her resemblance to Josie is unbelievable. And unmistakable. With it comes a flood of emotions—grief, loss, and anger—that Kit finally has a chance to put to rest: by finding the sister who’s been living a lie.

After arriving in New Zealand, Kit begins her journey with the memories of the past: of days spent on the beach with Josie. Of a lost teenage boy who’d become part of their family. And of a trauma that has haunted Kit and Josie their entire lives.

Now, if two sisters are to reunite, it can only be by unearthing long-buried secrets and facing a devastating truth that has kept them apart far too long. To regain their relationship, they may have to lose everything.”

This book is filled with twists, turns, lots of loss, romance, reunions, and long-wondered questions answered. There’s a fair bit of sex in this book, as well as rape and drug use, so for those that don’t like reading about those subjects or are triggered by it might want to avoid this book.

The premise of the book hooked me: a sister long-thought gone, is found again, at least on TV. Kit sees her sister on TV for a few fleeting seconds and just knows that she really didn’t die in the terrorist attack fifteen years prior. She decides to trek to New Zealand, where the TV footage came from, to try and track her sister, Josie, down.

The story is told from both Kit’s and Josie’s (now named Mari) point of view. This made it much more interesting and let the reader get behind the motivations of Mari to leave her entire life behind and start anew. There are repeated flashbacks showing how the girls grew up and the problems they faced.

But before she does any investigating, Kit hooks up with guy named Javier in a bar. What? If I’m flying half-way round the world to find my sister, I’m going to hit the ground running, not looking for casual sex. This sort of takes up too much space at the beginning of the story. But it sort of fits in with the character’s backstory, too. She’s always been the responsible sister, the one living in a dysfunctional household and manage to come out of it alive, yet not unscathed. She’s finally learning to let go and just let things happen. And as it turns out, Javier is important to the end of the story.

When We Believed in Mermaids is actually two stories: the mystery of Josie/Mari’s disappearance after a gritty and traumatized childhood, and a romanticized vision of two sisters torn apart by their past, and their attempt at closure once they find one another again.. The book moves along at a leisurely pace and slowly, family secrets are revealed. These women had one messed up family. The finding of Josie happens almost too easily, though. Now Mari, she introduces her sister to her family as an old friend since she has built her new life with a series of lies.

There’s this weird subplot about a movie star’s death that could have made Mari’s story even better, but it seems to have been forgotten for most of the book. There’s mention of journals and a computer that could have added another layer of mystery, but it’s not mentioned again until the end of the story, almost as an after-thought. It did not need to be included at all, but it added some interest to Mari’s otherwise dull life.

The story was engrossing, despite these issues, with themes of forgiveness and redemption and finding personal growth and finding one’s inner strength. There are some heavy themes with this book, but it all leads to an uplifting, tied up in a bow conclusion.

Three and a half out of 5 stars.

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