The Mermaid Chair
by Sue Monk Kidd

Viking Adult, 2005. ISBN 978-0-670-03394-2.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 04/20/2005

Fiction: Literary

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd begins with this sentence: "In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk." I read a recent book review which ridiculed this sentence, and I found it incomprehensible. After reading this sentence in a bookstore, I almost got a speeding ticket because I was so eager to get home and continue reading. The Mermaid Chair is the eloquent and complex story of Jessie Sullivan, who is mystified when she falls in love with another man—Father Thomas, a monk of all people. It is an exquisite love story that deals not only with the love affair between Jessie and Father Thomas and its ramifications for her husband, Hugh, but with her fervent love for her parents, her love of family, of close friends, and of her childhood home—the mystical Egret Island off the coast of South Carolina.

Jessie is called back to the island by a phone call in the middle of the night from her mother's close friend Kat, who explains that Jessie's mother has chopped off one of her fingers with an axe. She tells Jessie that she has no clue what might have possessed her to do such a thing. Jessie takes the ferry home to find her mother behaving irrationally, refusing to talk about what she has done. What we eventually learn is that the secrets the mother clings to are withheld not out of malice or insanity, but because she wishes to save those she loves from pain. She believes that in maiming herself, she is healing her own unbearable pain over the death of her husband.

In the midst of this mystifying event, Jessie finds herself inexplicably in love. She describes her feelings for Hugh as having been "a ravenous kind of wanting" for so many years, yet she admits her marriage has "lost its imagination." She compares what happened to their relationship to animals who are "...taken from the wild and put in nice, simulated habitats where they turn complacent, knowing exactly where their next meal would come from." I often wonder if a thriving marriage, due to its length, is unfeasible, whether it contains the seeds of its own destruction. I have doubts that it can sustain the ardor that created it, that it can offer the continued growth and excitement I, for one, expect of it. This stunningly written novel reminds me that, indeed, equally strong feelings can replace the more passionate ones.

Jessie's story is that of a woman who wishes to belong to herself, to remain open to all that is possible for her, and not take the road of comfort and mindless security, so easily taken. It is a story of self-inquiry—for Jessie as well as for Father Thomas and Hugh. Such a journey is inevitably fraught with indecision and confusion. Herein lies Jessie's conundrum. How will she proceed? She is stymied and in anguish, not knowing what to do, which risks are the right ones to take... as is Father Thomas. Hugh, as well, has had the rug pulled out from under him. His anguish as he recognizes his wife's sudden emotional and physical distance is dramatic; his conclusions, ultimately, courageous. All three characters are caught in the crisis of a new phase in their life. Yet each recognizes responsibility in what has befallen him or her.

A favorite theme of Sue Monk Kidd in her previous novel, The Secret Life of Bees, and this one is the enormous power of guilt. Jessie is wracked with it, believing that her father died in a boating fire ignited by the spark of a pipe she had given him as a special gift. A pervasive guilt drives all the characters. Shame, tragic loss, the need for intimacy, and the ever constant belief in a greater power propel this story into fascinating territory.

The author masterfully interweaves human guilt with the significance of the Catholic monastery on the island. That is where the mermaid chair comes in, though I do not wish to give away its significance. Enough to say that it sits in a side chapel in the church,the holiest place in the monastery. Every year, the mermaid chair takes center stage in a special ceremony on the blessed day for honoring St. Senara—a mermaid before her conversion and becoming a saint. I will not say more here except that the chair is a place of solace. To sit in it, to touch it connects the believer to all that is sacred.

Sue Monk Kidd's writing, in my view, is nothing less than magical. I have a new love of mermaids and reread The Mermaid Chair before I go to sleep at night in the hope a mermaid might swim her way into my dreams and guide me where I need to go.

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