Over the summer my mom and her friends threw me a shower. The theme was a literary tea, and it was awesome. As favors, we got to pick a book to take home. I picked up The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. The books were all donated, so I don’t know whose book this was, but once again I was intrigued by the art on the cover*.
I also have a thing for mermaids. When the Disney version of The Little Mermaid came out, my mom took my sister and I to see it twice. I knew all the words to “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” and Ursula scared the living hell out of me. When I got older, I read Hans Christian Andersen’s original version, and I cried. When my family and I go to the Outer Banks in North Carolina on vacation, I always pause over the mermaid knick knacks. I even bought a beautiful handmade card with a mermaid on it. I still haven’t sent it to anyone. Needless to say, it is not surprising that a book titled The Mermaid Chair caught my attention.
For those of you who read my posts about Juliet, Naked and The Girl in the Garden, you probably think I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but yes, friends, I liked this book too. Once again, we have a strong female lead and once again, she is flawed and confused. She is really confused. This is also a love story. There is a love triangle between the main female character, Jessie, her husband, and Jessie’s lover, Brother Thomas. That’s right, he’s a monk. That is the first twist of a few that come in the story.
Admittedly, the plot is laid out neat and clean for us right from the beginning as Jessie narrates in the prologue:
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 always admire when novelists pull this trick out of the hat early on in a story, because when you reveal your main conflict this early, you have to have some pretty stellar writing stashed up your sleeve to maintain the reader’s interest. Kidd does a good job of filling in careful, necessary details about Jessie, her husband Hugh, and a string of other important characters, including Brother Thomas. She also sets the story in the lush, ethereal albeit fictional, Egret Island. If you’ve spent anytime in North or South Carolina, you’re going to feel at a sense of familiarity immediately. If you have not spent anytime in North or South Carolina, you’re going to want to go immediately upon finishing the novel.
The main conflict in this book is really the internal turmoil that Jessie feels. What Kidd does so well is she gives words to a fear that I think a lot of women feel once they’ve settled comfortably into their lives and I think that’s the fear of losing oneself. We all spend a lot of time when we’re teenagers standing in front of the mirror and asking “who am I?” This continues into college when we stand in front of the same mirror, although this time we’re inebriated on cheap beer or box wine. I don’t think this question ever goes away, but we learn to avoid it or even scarier, we talk ourselves into the fact that we’ve figured it all out. Jessie thinks she knows who she is until something happens that just blows that identity all to hell. I found myself relating to her early and at the same time thinking, dear lord, how do I keep that from happening to me? But therein lies the rub because you can’t prevent it, so you might as well try to learn something from it, which is exactly what Jessie does.
This is the part of the blog post where I wave at my new husband and say “Don’t worry, honey. I’m not going to run off with a monk!” I mean, this isn’t the Thornbirds. However, it did get me to thinking about other books that I’ve read where something similar has happened to a female character. The first one that comes to mind is the mother in the novel The Lovely Bones (another good book). After the death of her daughter, the mother seemingly abandons her family for a period of time. However, I think the term “abandon” is a cynical term. She does leave her husband and two surviving children but not because of malice, but because of guilt. She failed to protect her daughter and that failure haunts her for the better part of the story. You could say that Jessie abandons her daughter and husband as well, but I guess what Kidd points out, and this is true of all stories fictional or not, is that it is never that simple.
What I also liked about The Mermaid Chair, is that it examines the idea of grief. There is a lot of loss, new and old, in this book and all the characters are grieving and recovering at their own pace. Healing is a long process and this book demonstrates just how long it can take someone to forgive not only another person, but also to forgive themselves.
Add The Mermaid Chair to your reading list. It’s a provoking and engaging story and it will make you think.