Ailsa Kelman is a highly unlikely mermaid. In her 60s, with a matronly figure and an uncanny ability to get herself on TV, the only things the feminist scholar has in common with Disney's Ariel are her red hair and first initial.
Nonetheless, when we first meet Ailsa, she's bedecked in a silver fish-scale dress, presenting an award being given to a scientific book about hermaphrodite fish. British writer Margaret Drabble calls Ailsa a "mermaid on dry land," and The Sea Lady, her 17th novel, uses the fish-out-of-water tale to discuss issues of character, shifting gender roles in the late 20th century, aging, and the debate of art versus science.
That's a lot of ballast for an essentially old-fashioned love story between two characters to carry, but Drabble is an accomplished writer who largely manages to keep her craft from capsizing.
Ailsa is on her way to Ornemouth, near where she spent a memorable summer on the north shore. There, she'll receive an honorary degree from a "newfangled, jumped-up" university along with her first husband, whom she hasn't seen in 30 years.
The reunion is not a coincidence, but it remains to be seen who's behind it. While Ailsa is looking forward to the meeting, Humphrey, a retired marine biologist, is unaware of anything except an impending feeling of doom. In fact, the train ride toward his past so traumatizes him that he loses his voice.
At this point, the novel jumps back in time to tell the story of Humphrey's childhood summer by the North Sea with Ailsa, her brother Tommy, and their friend Sandy Clegg. Ailsa is a stubborn and unattractive child, while Humphrey is a weak introvert, and neither particularly likes the other.
Drabble's abilities as both a writer and an observer shine most brightly in these chapters. She brilliantly captures both the austerity of life in post-war Britain and a childhood that feels real without being either overly precocious or nostalgic.
Humphrey and Sandy explore rock pools and make a homemade aquarium filled with stickleback fish. The Kelmans take everyone to visit the Pool of Brochan, where cod, called "Mother Longbone's chickens," take food from people's hands. Less lovely events also occur. Observing a family on the train to Ornemouth, the retired Humphrey muses, "They looked lighter, less solemn, these children, than the children of his childhood.... This family had never known rationing, austerity, prohibition. They had lived all their lives in a world of baguettes and burgers, of chocolates and Coca-Cola. Not in a world of dripping and jam sandwiches and Cherryade and compulsory cod liver oil."
After that one summer, the children all separate. Humphrey and Ailsa grow up, meet again, fall in love, and then briefly, disastrously wed, after which they part, have equally unsuccessful second marriages, and each achieve professional success.
Drabble seems more comfortable mocking Ailsa's youthful pretensions and self-absorption than revealing the brilliance she claims is there. Humphrey remains a more consistently realized character, although his profession leads to one of the novel's stylistic flaws.
Drabble piles on enough seafood for the Admiral's Platter at Red Lobster. Humpback wrasse, herring, stickleback, cod, cod liver oil, tiger sharks, leopard sharks, and sea squirts all populate her metaphorical aquarium.
But eventually, the book becomes waterlogged. If Ailsa or Humphrey goes out for a meal, they order sea urchin or mussels. If they read a book, it's "Treasure Island" or "The Water Babies." If they go to a movie, it's "The Blue Lagoon." By the time Humphrey fell in love with Ailsa's "mackerel movements," I was ready to send them both to the Sahara to dry out.
Drabble's other literary indulgence is the "Public Orator," who shows up periodically to intone. "The Orator disdains the primary vulgarity of plot, in favour of an ambitious attempt at meaning." To which a reader replies, "Oh, what a shame." Drabble finds a way to work her postmodern contrivance into the plot he so disdains and that helps to dispel a reader's annoyance, but the book would be better off without his arch interruptions.
If "The Sea Lady" doesn't rank among Drabble's best, such as "The Needle's Eye," it's still a quality work by a fine writer. But it may help if readers, like Humphrey, are "happiest underwater." Remember to bring a towel.
• Yvonne Zipp reviews fiction regularly for the Monitor.