Book Review: Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life


Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

This is a story within a story, and both of the stories are true. Lulu Miller wraps a memoir of a troubled time in her life around a biography of the persistent researcher and scientist named David Starr Jordan. If I had known that before reading this book, I would have said that it sounds like a combination that wouldn’t make for good reading. But I would have been very wrong.

Lulu’s father is a scientist and researcher, and also an atheist who believes that the meaning of life is that there is no meaning of life. Lulu makes the mistake of asking her father about this as a young girl, and her father makes the mistake of telling her what he truly thinks. It is this early knowledge that life is full of chaos and lacking in meaning that Lulu attributes to troubles she got into as a young woman, including a suicide attempt. 

She recovers from that and moves on with her life, finding love, comfort and solace in the arms of “the curly-haired man”. But then she loses all that by sleeping with another woman and telling him about it.

It’s here where she pauses to take stock of her life, and, searching for ways to win the curly-haired man back, looking for role models - people who are successful in finding order and imposing that order onto the chaos of life. And she finds a possible role model in David Starr Jordan, whose life she begins to research in earnest.

Jordan was a scientist at the turn of the twentieth century who studied and classified fish. He seems at first to embody many of the qualities that Lulu is looking for. What fascinated her most was his persistence in imposing order on the world’s fishes. Even when his collection of glass jars preserving his fish specimens crash to the floor and burst open during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Jordan persists and finds a way to relabel them and restore them to new glass jars in a very tight timeframe before they are all lost to decay.

But Jordan has a dark side too, and if you already know what it is, much of the magic of this book may be lost on you. I knew about the dark side, but had forgotten the name - I didn’t realize that dark story was Jordan’s. So I  was able to appreciate how Miller’s understanding of him unfolded. Another thing I appreciated  was the less than serious tone the author took. To call it light hearted is to undersell the earnestness of the book. Maybe whimsical is the right way of putting it.

The book sums up by bringing us up to date on Miller’s story and her emergence from that dark time in her life. And, she is able to put a final capstone on the story of Jordan as well, bringing the meaning of the book’s title fully into view.

This was a fairly short read at just over 200 pages, including the epilogue. It’s a gem of a book and well worth picking up.

RATING: Four and a Half Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐🌠

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Title: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

Author: Lulu Miller

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publish Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN-13: 9781501160349

Publisher’s List Price: $17.99 Paperback (as of 12/2022)