The Mermaid Chair
Sue Monk Kidd, 2005
Penguin Group USA
In her remarkable follow-up to the widely acclaimed The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd tells a beautiful and haunting story centered around forty-two-year-old Jessie Sullivan, a woman in quiet crisis whose return home to the island of a mermaid saint becomes a pilgrimage to self-awakening. In this powerful exploration of mid-life marriage and the intersection of the spiritual and the erotic in the feminine soul, Kidd illustrates the sacredness of belonging to oneself and the healing mercy of love and forgiveness.
Jessie's journey begins in the winter of 1988 when she receives an early-morning call from her mother Nelle's close friend Kat. Nelle has inexplicably and deliberately severed her own finger and Kat is calling to ask Jessie to return home to Egret Island, South Carolina, to care for her.
Though Jessie has been somewhat estranged from her mother for the last five years, she departs immediately—realizing that despite the disturbing circumstances awaiting her, she feels relief in leaving and having some time away from her husband, Hugh, a psychiatrist. Jessie loves Hugh, but twenty years into their picture-perfect marriage, with their only child away at college, she has begun to feel a groundswell of restlessness or, as she puts it, “the feeling of time passing, of being postponed, pent up.” Understanding herself primarily through her relationship to her husband and to her daughter, she is baffled by her discontent, by her sudden resistance to creating her small “art boxes” that have been her only tenuous link to the passion she once had to be an artist. She has lost “the little river of sparks” that runs through life, but mostly she has lost her deep connection to herself.
Once on Egret Island, Jessie finds herself ill equipped to handle her mother's continuing erratic behavior, much less to comprehend what lies behind her enigmatic act of self-violence. She senses that it's related to her father's death-a death that is still surrounded by unanswered questions thirty years later. As she tries to piece together Nelle's tormented past, Jessie reconnects with the two women who, along with her mother, once formed an inseparable female trio, bound together by rituals and secrets only they shared. When Jessie finally discovers the truth about Nelle and her father's death, it unlocks a dark, painful secret. Its revelation, however, will begin to heal the relationships in both women's lives.
Near Nelle's home is a Benedictine monastery that houses a mysterious and beautiful chair carved with mermaids and dedicated to Saint Senara, who, legend says, was a mermaid before her conversion. The abbey and the chair have always been special to Jessie. There, she meets Whit, a junior monk who sought refuge at the monastery after suffering a devastating loss. Only months away from taking his final vows, he isn't completely certain whether he has come to the abbey in search of God or in search of immunity from life.
Jessie's powerful attraction to Whit awakens an immense sexual and spiritual longing inside her, as well as a pulsing new sense of aliveness. Amid the seductive salt marshes and tidal creeks of the island, she abandons herself to the long-buried passions of her body and the yearnings of her creative spirit and embarks upon a descent into her own uncharted and shadowy depths in search of a place inside herself that is truly her own. Torn between the force of her desire and her enduring marriage, Jessie grapples with excruciating choices, ultimately creating a “marriage” with herself.
In this novel Kidd takes on the darker, more complex elements of the psyche and human relationships-spiritual emptiness, infidelity, death, mental illness and euthanasia—with a steady gaze and compassion not often found in modern fiction. Above all, The Mermaid Chair is a book that embraces the sensual pull of the mermaid and the divine pull of the saint, the commitment to oneself and the commitment to a relationship—and their ability to thrive simultaneously in every woman's soul. Kidd's candid and redemptive portrayal of a woman lost in the “smallest spaces” of her life ultimately becomes both an affirmation of ordinary married love and the sacredness of always saving a part of your soul for yourself. (From the publisher.)
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