Review of THE MERMAID CHAIR by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, April 2005
Jessie Stephen's is in the middle of a mid-life crisis. Her only daughter Dee has just left for college, her husband Hugh is often caught up in his own work as a psychiatrist. She's in desperate need of a change in her life, when an unexpected call informs Jessie that her mother, whom she hasn't seen in five years, has just cut off one of her fingers. Jessie sets out for her childhood home on Egret Island just off the coast of South Carolina to try and discover what's happened to her mother since their last encounter.
Returning home isn't easy for Jessie. When she left for college years ago, she swore it was forever, and her visits back have been few and far between. Jessie's need for space from Egret Island is largely due to the part she believes she played when she was nine in her father's death. Jessie adored her father and learning that the explosion of his fishing boat, which caused his death, may have been the result of a spark from the pipe she gave him devastates her. Once back on the island, however, Jessie finds her father's pipe in her mother's drawer, thus discovering she couldn't have been responsible for his death.
As she tries to unravel the mystery of her mother's depression, Jessie is drawn to the nearby monastery, with its myth of Mermaid Chair. The pagan and the pious dwell together in this space, where it is believed sitting in the chair can make wishes come true. Jessie's not sure what she's wishing for when she returns to sit there but what it brings to her is new love. Jessie meets and falls in love with one of the monks, Brother Thomas, a man who came to the monastery after suffering a great tragedy in his life, but hasn't yet taken final vows. They embark on a passionate and almost spiritual love affair, which they know has the potential to both save and destroy them.
When Jessie finally tells Hugh she needs some space apart, it is as much to pursue her long set aside art as it is her new relationship. As she is drawn into the circle of her mother's friends as well, she begins to paint mermaids, and in doing so, she uncovers a long-denied part of herself.
But when her mother takes off another of her fingers, Jessie realizes something is terribly wrong, and that she must seek help for her mother. Little does she know that finding this help will also answer questions about her own past, finally allowing her to come to grips with her father's death as well as her marriage.
The Mermaid's Chair is the follow-up to Sue Monk Kidd's hugely successful first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. While this book maintains the wonderful blending of the spiritual and the ordinary, I didn't find myself as caught up in the characters. Kidd provides wonderful descriptions of the island and its inhabitants-both human, animal, and natural-but the story lacks the depth and magical quality of her first book. Still, for anyone who wishes to follow a woman's journey through a mid-life crisis, this story is a beautiful blend of coming to terms with one's life and moving on with grace.
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