The Mermaid Chair
is a 2005 book by American novelist Sue Monk Kidd, who is best known for her 2002 novel, The Secret Life of Bees
. The Mermaid Chair
tells the story of Jessie Sullivan, who goes to Egret Island to tend to her mentally unstable mother, Nelle. While there, she becomes introspective and begins to think about things she needs to confront in her life. Having been estranged from her mother, Jessie struggles to examine and come to terms with their relationship. Nelle, however, is not the only one whom Jessie must consider. Now middle-aged, her marriage to her husband Hugh is decades-long. Hugh is a conventional husband, for the most part, and Jessie begins to feel that she might be looking for a type of independence that she has never experienced in life. While at Egret Island, Jessie meets Brother Thomas, an attractive monk who is nearing, but has not yet taken, his final vows. Jessie faces an inner conflict which pits passion against comfort and raises a question in her mind as to whether or not the two can exist together. Adding to her confusion is the growing need to face the circumstances of her father's death, which has haunted her and her mother for thirty years.
It is not uncommon for Sue Monk Kidd to write about people whose lives are being influenced and transformed by tragic situations. While The Secret Life of Bees
told the story of a fourteen year old white runaway who finds a place with three older black sisters, The Mermaid Chair
explores a middle-aged woman's rejection of her confined existence. Both books have characters who feel responsible for the death of a parent. In The Mermaid Chair
, Jessie’ father died in a fishing boat explosion. Reports about the accident stated that the event was caused by a fuel line that leaked and was likely set aflame by a spark from a pipe. The pipe was one that Jessie gave him. Over thirty years later, Jessie is still consumed by guilt. Jessie gets a phone call from an old friend of the family that prompts her journey back to her childhood home. Jessie’s mother, who has her own issues that haunt her, has cut off her finger with a carving knife. Once home on the small South Carolina island, Jessie begins to confront her past.
She begins by trying to reconcile with her mother and hopes to repair the long-standing damage to their relationship. Jessie discovers that the pipe she had given her father was actually not involved in causing his death. This realization opens old wounds. At the same time, she resolves to leave her husband, an arrogant man whom she feels belittles her. Further adding to her angst is her growing desire to be with Brother Thomas, who is the youngest of the island’s Benedictine monks. Also implicit in the narrative is the suggestion that the librarian at the monastery, Father Dominic, harbors some secret knowledge about the difficulties that Nelle struggles with. Indeed the monastery provides the title of the book, as inside the abbey is a mysterious chair that is beautifully carved with mermaids. The chair is dedicated to a saint who, according to legend, was a mermaid before being converted.
Jessie and Brother Thomas are both trying to escape what seems to be a limited lifestyle. For Jessie it is a stagnant marriage, for Brother Thomas it is the confines of a life in a monastery. The story becomes as much a romance as an introspective journey of self-discovery. It can be considered cliché
and overly simplistic to compare married life and monastic life as states that the characters find constraining, especially when this comparison is made in a narrative of love at first sight. Symbolism abounds in The Mermaid Chair
, with Jessie’s art, which is confined in little boxes, and her husband, Hugh, having nightmares about the isolation of outer space, being a couple of examples.
The novel was a number one The New York Times
bestseller and was honored with the 2005 Quill Award for General Fiction. It has appeared in twenty-three languages. The New York Times
was less than enthusiastic about the book that had topped its list saying, “The whole book revolves around spiritual replenishment born out of pain and sacrifice. Ms. Kidd has dealt more explicitly with such themes in earlier books, among them When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions
and God's Joyful Surprise: Finding Yourself Loved
. But in the remarkably literal-minded Mermaid Chair
they wind up abandoned. While Ms. Kidd seems to be sending her heroine on a daring voyage of self-discovery, she is creating a new route back to complacency instead…Ms. Kidd piles on the Low Country ambience with Nelle's best friends (one of whom speaks Gullah), pelican-watching, mud snails and mermaid memorabilia. Indeed, the Egret Island setting is the book's most inviting aspect, but it, too, feels generic. If a computer had been asked to combine romance, spirituality, nature, tourism and violent self-mutilation it might have come up with something like this.”