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.
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.
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