The Mermaid Chair
Forty-two-year-old Jessie Sullivan, devoted wife and mother, has lived her life "molded to the smallest space possible, my days the size of little beads that passed without passion through my fingers." Married to loving if uninspiring Hugh, with a daughter in college, Jessie is having a hard time finding passion for her marriage or for the artistic creation that used to sustain her. An emergency call shocks Jessie out of her routine, when she learns that her mother, from whom she has been estranged, has harmed herself. Jessie's mother Nelle, whose Catholic faith has bordered on fanaticism in recent years, lives on a South Carolina barrier island where she cooks for the community of Benedictine monks. For reasons no one knows, Nelle has intentionally severed her own finger.
Although Hugh, a psychiatrist, urges institutionalization for Nelle, Jessie decides to go to the island herself, partly to help her mother and partly just to have some time away from her life. As she explores the island, she discovers something quite unexpected --- her capacity to love again. The object of her affection is most unexpected --- Brother Thomas, the youngest monk at the monastery. Brother Thomas (whose real name is Whit) is sexy, mysterious, and a tragic figure, who lost his wife and unborn child in an accident years before. Struggling with questions of grief and faith, Whit, too, recognizes in Jessie the opportunity to reignite a part of himself that he thought he had lost forever.
Jessie struggles with her intense feelings toward Whit: "I was in love, and not only that, but it was a Great Love, and to walk away from it would be a denial of my life." In the meantime, her desire for Whit reawakens her artistic passions, and she finds herself making beautiful, symbolic paintings of the mermaids whose legends enrich the lore of this island. She also starts to investigate her father's mysterious death decades before, gradually fearing that her mother's bizarre behavior stems from guilt over a terrible secret.
Sue Monk Kidd's previous novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, has become a book club favorite in recent years. THE MERMAID CHAIR, with its considerations of married love versus romantic passion and its explorations of family history and women's friendships, is bound to be a discussion group favorite as well. Its evocative island setting and its deeply flawed but still appealing protagonist will draw in many readers. The novel's weakest aspect is its depiction of the love scenes between Jessie and Whit, many of which seem stilted and artificial, and rely too heavily on the imagery of the birds that populate the rookery where Whit works. (As the two observe bird mating behaviors, Jessie notes, "The truth was, I'd been snapping my bill and elongating my neck for the last five minutes.") Jessie's final decision also may come too quickly and seem too forced for some readers, although many will find her choice comforting and the message of the novel affirming.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011
The Mermaid Chair
- Publication Date: March 7, 2006
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Penguin
- ISBN-10: 0143036696
- ISBN-13: 9780143036692