Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $26
When I first chose to read “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” I assumed it would not fit in the mystery category. In fact, the book doesn’t, but about halfway through the book, one appeared anyway.
“Why Fish Don’t Exist” is a biography of David Starr Jordan, a famous taxonomist in his day and the first president of Stanford University. It is also a memoir by Lulu Miller. The book is a fabulous jumble of then (early 1900s) and now; discursions on stars, fish, love, meaning, being, and chaos; and a coming of age of a person long past her teenage years. Lulu Miller slices-and-dices various stories. All that means is that you will have several intriguing storylines to follow.
The writerly thing that Lulu Miller does is she draws her story forward from a gentle rural beginning to a cosmological ending. Will the poor, farm-bound, intelligent but awkward lad manage to escape his destiny among cows and fields to sing with the stars he so admires? Will the boy who grew up so far inland that his first glimpse of the sea does not come until he is a man become the unlikely cataloguer of the creatures of the sea? Will the boy who once was open to everything become a man who despotically ruled what would become one of the premier educational institutions in the country? Will you love him or hate him, admire him or loathe him?
Will Lulu Miller move past her obsession with the boy with the curly hair? Will she make her peace with chaos or will the darkness wrap tightly around her?
“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” and I hope you are convinced that the title is true by the time the book ends, is about a poetic yearning by both subject and author. There are wondrous asides, crafted by a person who is embedded in a science background. The part about Anna and Mary — sorry, no hints allowed — almost made me cry.
And there is a brief but crucial murder mystery.