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Mermaid Chair (Kidd)

The Mermaid Chair
Sue Monk Kidd, 2005
Penguin Group USA
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143036692

Summary
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.)



About the Author Bio
Birth—August 12, 1948
Where—Sylvester, Georgia, USA
Education—B.S., Texas Christian University
Awards—Poets and Writers Award; Katherine Anne Porter   
   Award
Currently—lives in Charleston, South Carolina


Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, spent more than one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, has sold more than four million copies, and was chosen as the 2004 Book Sense Paperback Book of the Year and Good Morning America's "Read This!" Book Club pick. She is also the author of several acclaimed memoirs and the recipient of numerous awards, including a Poets & Writers award. She lives near Charleston, South Carolina.

More
Sue Monk Kidd first made her mark on the literary circuit with a pair of highly acclaimed, well-loved memoirs detailing her personal spiritual development. However, it was a work of fiction, The Secret Life of Bees, that truly solidified her place among contemporary writers. Although Kidd is no longer writing memoirs, her fiction is still playing an important role in her on-going journey of spiritual self-discovery.

Despite the fact that Kidd's first published books were nonfiction works, her infatuation with writing grew out of old-fashioned, Southern-yarn spinning. As a little girl in the little town of Sylvester, Georgia, Kidd thrilled to listen to her father tell stories about "mules who went through cafeteria lines and a petulant boy named Chewing Gum Bum," as she says on her web site. Inspired by her dad's tall tales, Kidd began keeping a journal that chronicled her everyday experiences.

Such self-scrutiny surely gave her the tools she needed to pen such keenly insightful memoirs as When the Hearts Waits and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, both tracking her development as both a Christian and a woman. "I think when you have an impulse to write memoir you are having an opportunity to create meaning of your life," she told Barnes & Noble.com, "to articulate your experience; to understand it in deeper ways... And after a while, it does free you from yourself, of having to write about yourself, which it eventually did for me."

Once Kidd had worked the need to write about herself out of her system, she decided to get back to the kind of storytelling that inspired her to become a writer in the first place. Her debut novel The Secret Life of Bees showed just how powerfully the gift of storytelling charges through Kidd's veins. The novel has sold more than 4.5 million copies, been published in over twenty languages, and spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

Even as Kidd has shifted her focus from autobiography to fiction, she still uses her writing as a means of self-discovery. This is especially evident in her latest novel The Mermaid Chair, which tells the story of a woman named Jessie who lives a rather ordinary life with her husband Hugh until she meets a man about to take his final vows at a Benedictine monastery. Her budding infatuation with Brother Thomas leads Jessie to take stock of her life and resolve an increasingly intense personal tug-of-war between marital fidelity and desire.

Kidd feels that through telling Jessie's story, she is also continuing her own journey of self-discovery, which she began when writing her first books. "I think there is some part of that journey towards one's self that I did experience. I told that particular story in my book The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and it is the story of a woman's very-fierce longing for herself. The character in The Mermaid Chair Jessie has this need to come home to herself in a much deeper way," Kidd said, "to define herself, and I certainly know that longing."

Extras
Kidd lives beside a salt marsh near Charleston, South Carolina, with her husband, Sandy, a marriage and individual counselor in private practice. (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
Jessie Sullivan, the protagonist of this rewarding second novel by the author of the bestselling The Secret Life of Bees, is awakened by a shrilling phone late one night to horrifying news: her mother, who has never recovered from her husband Joe's death 33 years earlier, has chopped off her own finger with a cleaver. Frantic with worry, and apprehensive at the thought of returning to the small island where she grew up in the shadow of her beloved father's death and her mother's fanatical Catholicism, 42-year-old Jessie gets on the next plane, leaving behind her psychiatrist husband, Hugh, and college-age daughter, Dee. On tiny Egret Island, off the coast of South Carolina, Jessie tries to care for her mother, Nelle, who is not particularly eager to be taken care of. Jessie gets help from Nelle's best friends, feisty shopkeeper Kat and Hepzibah, a dignified chronicler of slave history. To complicate matters, Jessie finds herself strangely relieved to be free of a husband she loves—and wildly attracted to Brother Thomas, a junior monk at the island's secluded Benedictine monastery. Confusing as the present may be, the past is rearing its head, and Jessie, who has never understood why her mother is still distraught by Joe's death, begins to suspect that she's keeping a terrible secret. Writing from the perspective of conflicted, discontented Jessie, Kidd achieves a bold intensity and complexity that wasn't possible in The Secret Life of Bees, narrated by teenage Lily. Jessie's efforts to cope with marital stagnation; Whit's crisis of faith; and Nelle's tormented reckoning with the past will resonate with many readers. This emotionally rich novel, full of sultry, magical descriptions of life in the South, is sure to be another hit for Kidd.
Publishers Weekly


According to Kidd's follow-up to The Secret Life of Bees, there's nothing like a little soulful adultery to get an anemic marriage back on track. Atlanta housewife and part-time artist Jessie Sullivan has been in a mild funk since her daughter Dee started college. Then she and her sensitive but controlling husband, Hugh, receive news that her obsessively devout mother, Nelle, has purposely cut off a finger—whether out of misplaced piety or mental illness isn't known. With trepidation, Jessie returns to the South Carolina barrier island where she was raised to care for Nelle. She still carries guilt that a spark from the pipe she had given her father supposedly caused the boating accident that killed him when she was nine. Since then, Nelle has cooked for the neighboring monks, whose patron saint, Saint Senare, was an Irish mermaid before she found God. Jessie meets and is immediately attracted to the newest addition to the monastery, Father Thomas. A former lawyer whose wife and unborn child died in a freak accident, Father Thomas, who has yet to take his final vows, is in charge of the rookery, so he spends his days paddling alone down various creeks. Soon, Jessie is paddling with him while delving into her own sensuality and selfhood. No pure lust, but a spiritual coupling has taken place as evidenced, at least, by the pictures she creates of a mermaid diving deep toward the ocean floor, while there's much talk of being "damned and saved both." Jesse learns she isn't to blame for her father's death, but her relief is short-lived, since Nelle cuts off another finger. Loyal Hugh shows up to help and discovers Jessie's affair. Once the truth of Jessie's father's death is revealed, Nelle begins a real recovery, while a wiser, stronger Jessie returns to the ever-patient Hugh, who vows to be a better husband. Bestselling Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, 2002) has a gift for language, but the saccharine aftertaste won't go away.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. How does a woman like Jessie become “molded to the smallest space possible”? What signs might appear in her life? What did Jessie mean when she said part of the problem was her chronic inability to astonish herself?

2. Jessie comes to believe that an essential problem in her marriage is not that she and Hugh have grown apart, but that they have grown “too much together.” What do you think she means by that? How important is it for Jessie to find her “solitude of being”? How does a woman balance apartness and togetherness in a relationship?

3. How would you describe Nelle before and after her husband's death? What is your interpretation of the mysterious factors that led her to cut off her finger? What do her fingers symbolize? How does the myth of Sedna—the Inuit mermaid whose severed fingers became the first sea creatures—shed light on Nelle's state of mind?

4. Jessie feels that she has found a soul mate in Whit. Do you find this word inviting or repellent? When we speak of looking for a soul mate, what do we mean? Is there really such a thing?

5. Why do you think Whit came to the monastery? Would you describe him as having a crisis of faith? In what ways does he vacillate between falling into life and transcending it? What do you think of his decision at the end about whether to leave or to stay?

6. Islands are often places of personal trial and distillation of self—such as Shakespeare's The Tempest or Golding's Lord of the Flies. What are the emotional islands upon which each character is stranded? What is the significance of the Egret Island setting? How does each character finally escape the island of his or her making? What does the trial on the enchanted island reveal about each character?

7. St. Senara only becomes a saint once an abbot hides her fish tail and prohibits her from returning to the sea. On one hand, she has lost her wild nature and freedom to swim away, but on the other hand, she has gained sainthood among the humans she has grown to love. What is the significance of this tale in Jessie's life? When she leaves her husband to return to Egret Island, is she the wild mermaid or the stranded saint? How does the duality of the mermaid and the saint play out in women's lives? Can a woman contain both? Why do you think mystics and poets have drawn comparisons between sensual delight and godly delight?

8. The mermaid chair is a central image in the novel. What does it symbolize? What role does it play in the novel? In Jessie's life? In her father's? How does it become a place of dying and rebirth for both of them, literally and figuratively?

9. How would you describe Jessie's relationship with her father? How did having an absent father affect her? How did it affect her relationship to Hugh? What do you think Kidd was suggesting by the image of the whirley girl?

10. Jessie breaks away from creating her tiny art boxes and begins to paint, finding her true gift. Why is she unable to take up her authentic creative life before this? What role do her paintings play in her metamorphosis? How does Jessie's series of paintings of diving women reflect her own experience? What role does the motif of diving play in the novel?

11. The novel celebrates the hallowed bonds of women and suggests how a true community of women can become a maternal circle that nurtures a woman toward self-realization and helps her to give birth to a new life. How do Kat, Hepzibah, and even Benne play a role in Jessie's transformation? What has been the importance of female communities in your own life?

12. In perhaps the most moving and cathartic moment in the novel, Jessie goes to Bone Yard beach and speaks vows of commitment to herself—“'Jessie. I take you, Jessie...for better or worse...to love and to cherish.'” What does it mean to make a “marriage” to your self? Paradoxically, Jessie discovered that belonging to herself allowed her to belong more truly to Hugh. Does an inviolate commitment to oneself enhance one's commitment to a relationship?

13. In your mind, was Jessie's father's death a sin? Jessie isn't sure if choosing to end one's life in order to spare oneself and one's family extreme suffering was horning in on God's territory and usurping “the terrifying power to say when,” or whether it was usurping God's deep heart by laying down one's life as a sacrifice. What do you think?

14. The Mermaid Chair suggests that a love affair may be a common response to a marriage that has lost its way, but that in the end it is not a solution. In what way do you think the novel is a cautionary tale? Why do you think Jessie is unable to heed the warnings from Kat and Hepzibah? How could Jessie have found awakening without betraying her marriage?

15. Upon her return home, Jessie says, “There would be no grand absolution, only forgiveness meted out in these precious sips. It would well up from Hugh's heart in spoonfuls and he would feed it to me. And it would be enough.” Why does Jessie return to Hugh? Why is Hugh able to accept her back into his life? How has their relationship changed since she left for Egret Island? How has Jessie changed?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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