The Mermaid Chair [NOOK Book]

Overview

The New York Times–bestselling second novel by the author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings (Viking, January 2014)

Inside the church of a Benedictine monastery on Egret Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, resides a beautiful and mysterious chair ornately carved with mermaids and dedicated to a saint who, legend claims, was a mermaid before her ...
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The Mermaid Chair

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Overview

The New York Times–bestselling second novel by the author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings (Viking, January 2014)

Inside the church of a Benedictine monastery on Egret Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, resides a beautiful and mysterious chair ornately carved with mermaids and dedicated to a saint who, legend claims, was a mermaid before her conversion.

When Jessie Sullivan is summoned home to the island to cope with her eccentric mother’s seemingly inexplicable behavior, she is living a conventional life with her husband, Hugh, a life “molded to the smallest space possible.” Jessie loves Hugh, but once on the island, she finds herself drawn to Brother Thomas, a monk about to take his final vows. Amid a rich community of unforgettable island women and the exotic beauty of marshlands, tidal creeks, and majestic egrets, Jessie grapples with the tension of desire and the struggle to deny it, with a freedom that feels overwhelmingly right and the immutable force of home and marriage.

Is the power of the mermaid chair only a myth? Or will it alter the course of Jessie’s life? What happens will unlock the roots of her mother’s tormented past, but most of all, it will allow Jessie to comes discover selfhood and a place of belonging as she explores the thin line between the spiritual and the erotic.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Jessie Sullivan, the protagonist of this rewarding second novel by the author of the bestselling 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, n Whit O'Conner, 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. Agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. 20-city author tour. (Apr. 5) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The fancifully carved "mermaid chair" belongs to a Benedictine monastery on the island where Jessie has gone to find herself-and instead finds Brother Thomas. With a 20-city tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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, Nellebegins 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. Author tour
From the Publisher
“Book clubs, start your engines. Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, has sold 3 million copies since 2002.…Those are big shoes to fill, but Kidd acquits herself admirably with The Mermaid Chair….Both novels drip with vivid images of hot Southern afternoons, droning insects, swooping birds and oases in which nature is the fabric of life. It is a tapestry strengthened by bonds between women that bridge pain and loss. Most important, both have passages of beautiful writing… Kidd wrote two well-received memoirs before turning to fiction. But perhaps the answer ultimately given by The Mermaid Chair is that a storyteller also can change course and come of age in the middle of her life.”

USA Today

“Her writing is so smart and sharp, she gives new life to old midlife crises, and she draws connections from the feminine to the divine to the erotic that a lesser writer wouldn't see, and might not have the guts to follow.”

Time

"(A) rewarding second novel by the author of the bestselling Secret Life of Bees. 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."

Publisher's Weekly

, starred review

“Compelling reading….The writing is soulful in its probing of the human heart and family secrets.”

The San Francisco Chronicle

"Secrets are told. Mysteries are revealed. In one rich and satisfying gush…, Jessie reevaluates just about every aspect of her life: her husband, her lover, her mother, her artwork, the death of her father decades ago, and most of all herself... Rewarding."

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“If [The Secret Life of] Bees was a girl’s coming-of-age novel, [The Mermaid] Chair is a woman’s coming-of-middle-age novel….The prose thrilled me. Kidd can really turn a phrase and her descriptions of nature’s archetypal elements are magnificent.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A woman at life’s crossroads, a parent’s tragic death and a strong, if eccentric circle of women. Stir in a forbidden love, and the pages all but turn themselves.”

Parade

“Kidd grabs you from the first sentence of The Mermaid’s Chair. It is a satisfying tale that balances Southern gothic…[with] wish-fulfillment romance and a down-to-earth dissection of family problems. Sue Monk Kidd is a high-end practitioner of Ya-Ya-ism, with a lucid prose style and a fine sense of story. … A good read.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Richly rewarding.”

Chicago Tribune

"Kidd's second offering is just as gracefully written as her first and possesses an equally compelling story. It should appeal to the many readers who made her first novel a hit with book clubs."

Booklist Magazine

(American Library Association)

"Fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, will be equally enamored with her beguiling sophomore effort....Reconciling the spiritual with the human, The Mermaid Chair is a captivating metaphorical and sensual journey into one woman’s soul. Weaving enduring folklore about the seductive and transformative power of mermaids into a modern-day tale of rebirth, the novel shows us that sometimes we need to swim out to sea for the currents to carry us back home."

Book Page Magazine

“It’s hard to put this book down for little things like sleeping and eating.”

Elle, “Elle’s Letters” Readers’ Prize 2005

“A well-told tale about marriage, mystery – and mermaids….Kidd writes at a deeper emotional level than she did in the fabulously popular Bees. Her characters are more tormented, more complex, in their processes of coming unwound and then healing….Yet it is also a quite powerful feminist statement, and can be savored strictly on the basis of Kidd’s beautiful use of language….The Mermaid Chair is a multidimensional pleasure.”

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Kidd’s greatest strength as a writer is her sensuous, evocative prose. Egret Island is alive with its scent of salted air, old crab pots, bulling gumbo. The novel is also full, dense with symbolism, from the recurrent motif of the mermaid, diving deep and surfacing, to images of baptism, birds, rebirth. And Kidd continues to emphasize her central insights into the power of secrets to fester, the healing force of honesty and the significance of communities of independent but interwoven women, open to reconfigured rituals of grace….Kidd suggests that to merge body and soul just might enlarge a sense of what it is to be religious and to be married.”

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

“[Kidd’s] imagination, originality and command of language never cease. She is simply a profound storyteller.”

The Denver Post

“Kidd draws on her extensive knowledge of theology and mythology in this insightful book about the passions and desires of body and soul. Kidd. . . slowly and carefully unveils her story about the meaning of love, the necessity of risk, and the power of forgiveness.”

Orlando Sentinel

“The steady pulse of Kidd's writing pushes this narrative from heart-throbber to soul-searcher.”

Boston Herald

“Kidd’s sparkling imagery in The Mermaid Chair surpasses her efforts in [The Secret Life of] Bees and helps morph a simple story into something approaching myth….What keeps Kidd…flying high is her abiding sense of humor (her characters are really “characters”), an earthbound understanding of the ebb and flow of life, and her studious attention to the great metaphors of life.”

Santa Cruz Sentinel

“This lush follow-up finds Kidd asking even bigger questions with the story of a woman whose life and marriage have grown increasingly stale.”

Breathe

“[An] illuminating investigation of midlife malaise…The Mermaid Chair honors those who conjure up the courage to rediscover and recommit to their life passions.”

The Seattle Times

“No question: Kidd can write.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune

“Those who fell in love with Kidd’s first novel will find pleasure here.”

The Oregonian

“It takes a rare and mysterious novel to speak to our souls in so many ways that we return to the book again and again for refreshment and renewal. Sue Monk Kidd created that kind of magic in The Secret Life of Bees, and her new novel promises to have the same effect….

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101201039
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/7/2006
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 26,313
  • File size: 935 KB

Meet the Author

Sue Monk Kidd
SUE MONK KIDD is the author of the novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, and the memoirs, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, When the Heart Waits, and Firstlight, a collection of early writings. The Secret Life of Bees has spent more than 125 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into an award-winning movie. The Mermaid Chair, a #1 New York Times bestseller, was adapted into a television movie. Each of her novels has been translated into more than 24 languages. The recipient of numerous literary awards, Sue lives in South Carolina with her husband.



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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

February 17, 1988, I opened my eyes and heard a procession of sounds: first the phone going off on the opposite side of the bed, rousing us at 5:04 a.m. to what could only be a calamity, then rain pummeling the roof of our old Victorian house, sluicing its sneaky way to the basement, and finally small puffs of air coming from Hugh's lower lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome.

Twenty years of this puffing. I'd heard it when he wasn't even asleep, when he sat in his leather wing chair after dinner, reading through the column of psychiatric journals rising from the floor, and it would seem like the cadence against which my entire life was set.

The phone rang again, and I lay there, waiting for Hugh to pick up, certain it was one of his patients, probably the paranoid schizophrenic who'd phoned last night convinced the CIA had him cornered in a federal building in downtown Atlanta.

A third ring, and Hugh fumbled for the receiver. "Yes, hello," he said, and his voice came out coarse, a hangover from sleep.

I rolled away from him then and stared across the room at the faint, watery light on the window, remembering that today was Ash Wednesday, feeling the inevitable rush of guilt.

My father had died on Ash Wednesday when I was nine years old, and in a convoluted way, a way that made no sense to anyone but me, it had been at least partially my fault.

There had been a fire on his boat, a fuel-tank explosion, they'd said. Pieces of the boat had washed up weeks later, including a portion of the stern with Jes-Sea printed on it. He'd named the boat for me, not for my brother, Mike, or even for my mother, whom he'd adored, but for me, Jessie.

I closed my eyes and saw oily flames and roaring orange light. An article in the Charleston newspaper had referred to the explosion as suspicious, and there had been some kind of investigation, though nothing had ever come of it--things Mike and I'd discovered only because we'd sneaked the clipping from Mother's dresser drawer, a strange, secret place filled with fractured rosaries, discarded saint medals, holy cards, and a small statue of Jesus missing his left arm. She had not imagined we would venture into all that broken-down holiness.

I went into that terrible sanctum almost every day for over a year and read the article obsessively, that one particular line: "Police speculate that a spark from his pipe may have ignited a leak in the fuel line."

I'd given him the pipe for Father's Day. Up until then he had never even smoked.

I still could not think of him apart from the word "suspicious," apart from this day, how he'd become ash the very day people everywhere--me, Mike, and my mother--got our foreheads smudged with it at church. Yet another irony in a whole black ensemble of them.

"Yes, of course I remember you," I heard Hugh say into the phone, yanking me back to the call, the bleary morning. He said, "Yes, we're all fine here. And how are things there?"

This didn't sound like a patient. And it wasn't our daughter, Dee, I was sure of that. I could tell by the formality in his voice. I wondered if it was one of Hugh's colleagues. Or a resident at the hospital. They called sometimes to consult about a case, though generally not at five in the morning.

I slipped out from the covers and moved with bare feet to the window across the room, wanting to see how likely it was that rain would flood the basement again and wash out the pilot light on the hot-water heater. I stared out at the cold, granular deluge, the bluish fog, the street already swollen with water, and I shivered, wishing the house were easier to warm.

I'd nearly driven Hugh crazy to buy this big, impractical house, and even though we'd been in it seven years now, I still refused to criticize it. I loved the sixteen-foot ceilings and stained-glass transoms. And the turret--God, I loved the turret. How many houses had one of those? You had to climb the spiral stairs inside it to get to my art studio, a transformed third-floor attic space with a sharply slanted ceiling and a skylight--so remote and enchanting that Dee had dubbed it the "Rapunzel tower." She was always teasing me about it. "Hey, Mom, when are you gonna let your hair down?"

That was Dee being playful, being Dee, but we both knew what she meant--that I'd become too stuffy and self-protected. Too conventional. This past Christmas, while she was home, I'd posted a Gary Larson cartoon on the refrigerator with a magnet that proclaimed me world's greatest mom. In it, two cows stood in their idyllic pasture. One announced to the other, "I don't care what they say, I'm not content." I'd meant it as a little joke, for Dee.

I remembered now how Hugh had laughed at it. Hugh, who read people as if they were human Rorschachs, yet he'd seen nothing suggestive in it. It was Dee who'd stood before it an inordinate amount of time, then given me a funny look. She hadn't laughed at all.

To be honest, I had been restless. It had started back in the fall--this feeling of time passing, of being postponed, pent up, not wanting to go up to my studio. The sensation would rise suddenly like freight from the ocean floor--the unexpected discontent of cows in their pasture. The constant chewing of all that cud.

With winter the feeling had deepened. I would see a neighbor running along the sidewalk in front of the house, training, I imagined, for a climb up Kilimanjaro. Or a friend at my book club giving a blow-by-blow of her bungee jump from a bridge in Australia. Or--and this was the worst of all--a TV show about some intrepid woman traveling alone in the blueness of Greece, and I'd be overcome by the little river of sparks that seemed to run beneath all that, the blood/sap/wine, aliveness, whatever it was. It had made me feel bereft over the immensity of the world, the extraordinary things people did with their lives--though, really, I didn't want to do any of those particular things. I didn't know then what I wanted, but the ache for it was palpable.

I felt it that morning standing beside the window, the quick, furtive way it insinuated itself, and I had no idea what to say to myself about it. Hugh seemed to think my little collapse of spirit, or whatever it was I was having, was about Dee's being away at college, the clichÈd empty nest and all that.

Last fall, after we'd gotten her settled at Vanderbilt, Hugh and I'd rushed home so he could play in the Waverly Harris Cancer Classic, a tennis tournament he'd been worked up about all summer. He'd gone out in the Georgia heat for three months and practiced twice a week with a fancy Prince graphite racket. Then I'd ended up crying all the way home from Nashville. I kept picturing Dee standing in front of her dorm waving good-bye as we pulled away. She touched her eye, her chest, then pointed at us -- a thing she'd done since she was a little girl. Eye. Heart. You. It did me in. When we got home, despite my protests, Hugh called his doubles partner, Scott, to take his place in the tournament, and stayed home and watched a movie with me. An Officer and a Gentleman. He pretended very hard to like it.

The deep sadness I felt in the car that day had lingered for a couple of weeks, but it had finally lifted. I did miss Dee -- of course I did -- but I couldn't believe that was the real heart of the matter.

Lately Hugh had pushed me to see Dr. Ilg, one of the psychiatrists in his practice. I'd refused on the grounds that she had a parrot in her office.

I knew that would drive him crazy. This wasn't the real reason, of course -- I have nothing against people's having parrots, except that they keep them in little cages. But I used it as a way of letting him know I wasn't taking the suggestion seriously. It was one of the rare times I didn't acquiesce to him.

"So she's got a parrot, so what?" he'd said. "You'd like her." Probably I would, but I couldn't quite bring myself to go that far -- all that paddling around in the alphabet soup of one's childhood, scooping up letters, hoping to arrange them into enlightening sentences that would explain why things had turned out the way they had. It evoked a certain mutiny in me.

I did occasionally, though, play out imaginary sessions with Dr. Ilg in my head. I would tell her about my father, and, grunting, she would write it down on a little pad -- which is all she ever seemed to do. I pictured her bird as a dazzling white cockatoo perched on the back of her chair, belting out all sorts of flagrant opinions, repeating itself like a Greek chorus: "You blame yourself, you blame yourself, you blame yourself."

Not long ago -- I don't know what possessed me to do it -- I'd told Hugh about these make- believe sessions with Dr. Ilg, even about the bird, and he'd smiled. "Maybe you should just see the bird," he said. "Your Dr. Ilg sounds like an idiot."

Now, across the room, Hugh was listening to the person on the phone, muttering, "Uh-huh, uh-huh." His face had clamped down into what Dee called "the Big Frown," that pinched expression of grave and intense listening in which you could almost see the various pistons in his brain -- Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney, Winnicott -- bobbing up and down.

Wind lapped over the roof, and I heard the house begin to sing -- as it routinely did -- with an operatic voice that was very Beverly "Shrill," as we liked to say. There were also doors that refused to close, ancient toilets that would suddenly decline to flush ("The toilets have gone anal- retentive again!" Dee would shout), and I had to keep constant vigilance to prevent Hugh from exterminating the flying squirrels that lived in the fireplace in his study. If we ever got a divorce, he loved to joke, it would be about squirrels.

But I loved all of this; I truly did. It was only the basement floods and the winter drafts that I hated. And now, with Dee in her first year at Vanderbilt, the emptiness -- I hated that.

Hugh was hunched on his side of the bed, his elbows balanced on his knees and the top two knobs of his spine visible through his pajamas. He said, "You realize this is a serious situation, don't you? She needs to see someone -- I mean, an actual psychiatrist."

I felt sure then it was a resident at the hospital, though it did seem Hugh was talking down to him, and that was not like Hugh.

Through the window the neighborhood looked drowned, as if the houses -- some as big as arks -- might lift off their foundations and float down the street. I hated the thought of slogging out into this mess, but of course I would. I would drive to Sacred Heart of Mary over on Peachtree and get my forehead swiped with ashes. When Dee was small, she'd mistakenly called the church the "Scared Heart of Mary." The two of us still referred to it that way sometimes, and it occurred to me now how apt the name really was. I mean, if Mary was still around, like so many people thought, including my insatiably Catholic mother, maybe her heart was scared. Maybe it was because she was on such a high and impossible pedestal -- Consummate Mother, Good Wife, All-Around Paragon of Perfect Womanhood. She was probably up there peering over the side, wishing for a ladder, a parachute, something to get her down from there.

I hadn't missed going to church on Ash Wednesday since my father had died -- not once. Not even when Dee was a baby and I had to take her with me, stuffing her into a thick papoose of blankets, armored with pacifiers and bottles of pumped breast milk. I wondered why I'd kept subjecting myself to it -- year after year at the Scared Heart of Mary. The priest with his dreary incantation: "Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return." The blotch of ash on my forehead.

I only knew I had carried my father this way my whole life.

Hugh was standing now. He said, "Do you want me to tell her?" He looked at me, and I felt the gathering of dread. I imagined a bright wave of water coming down the street, rounding the corner where old Mrs. Vandiver had erected a gazebo too close to her driveway; the wave, not mountainous like a tsunami but a shimmering hillside sweeping toward me, carrying off the ridiculous gazebo, mailboxes, doghouses, utility poles, azalea bushes. A clean, ruinous sweep.

"It's for you," Hugh said. I didn't move at first, and he called my name. "Jessie. The call -- it's for you."

He held the receiver out to me, sitting there with his thick hair sticking up on the back of his head like a child's, looking grave and uneasy, and the window copious with water, a trillion pewter droplets coming down on the roof.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

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.

ABOUT SUE MONK KIDD

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.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • Islands are often places of personal trial and distillation of self—such as Shakespeare's The Tempest or Golding'sLord 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
     
  • 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?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 348 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(84)

4 Star

(67)

3 Star

(70)

2 Star

(60)

1 Star

(67)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 348 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 21, 2011

    Soul Satisfying Book

    In The Mermaid Chair, Sue Monk Kidd does for fiction what the Flemish masters did for painting. She imbues each scene with so much reality it unfolds in your mind like a memory.

    You can taste the salty sea air and smell the murky island scents of Egret Island. You feel every horrific and blessed thing that Jessie experiences.

    I have never fallen so completely in love with a book before. Her writing is beyond beautiful. It¿s startling and humbling. I found myself nodding and rereading lines, thinking YES that is exactly how it feels but how did she capture it so perfectly?

    The book is brimming with brilliance. Some of my favorite lines are:

    ¿The mind is so good at revising reality to suit its needs.¿

    ¿There¿s release in knowing the truth no matter how anguishing it is.¿

    ¿Sometimes the heart wanted what the soul demanded.¿

    The story felt like a mid-life crisis crossed with a finding oneself journey.

    Sue Monk Kidd¿s website describes the story as ¿the transendent tale explores the lush, unknown region of the feminine soul where the thin line between the spiritual and the erotic exists. Here is an unforgettable love story, between a woman and a monk, a woman and her family, and ultimately a woman and her own soul.¿

    I think of it as a spiritual journey that leaves Jessie and the reader forever changed by calling into question the bonds of love and commitment. By reminding us that everything is a choice. Whether to leave a husband, to reunite with a parent, to be fully alive.

    Sue Monk Kidd is a master of the writing craft. Her ability to set the scene is breathtaking and realistic. Her dialogue is poignant. Her character¿s internal thoughts vivid and engaging. There was not one point in the book where I wanted to put it down. Every aspect of the writing was engaging. I will be rereading this book for years to come, hoping to gain insight into how she does it.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2010

    Buy The Secret Life of Bees pass this one by

    I bought this book for my mom cause she loved the Secret Life of Bees, do not buy this book you will regret it. She hated this book and told me all the details daily as she read this book, she could not have hated a book more. Save yourself do not buy this book it is really bad.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 6, 2011

    different feel than Bees

    This is much more a love story for adults than Secret life of bees. Well worth a read, and would make a great beach book.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Plot is too thin to sustain a full novel.

    Here's the plot: Jessie, 42, is questioning her marriage as she takes care of her emotionally unsettled mother. Jessie has a brief affair, learns the truth about her father's death, and they all lived happily ever after.

    It's that thin. I can't believe someone made an entire novel out of something so flimsy. The author tries to make it into something sacred, scraping for metaphor with hackneyed symbolism (water, fire, purification rituals) and tenuous ties to Roman Catholic mysticism, but in the end it is repetitive and trying. There is no richness here, only a lot of set dressing.

    For some odd reason the protagonist is narrating the story (set in the late 1980s) as if it were decades ago; you get to the end of the book and find it was only a year ago. Why the late 1980s? Why all of the references to the politics of the day, to Mr. Coffee and Sony Walkman, and the myriad other product placements in the narrative? There's no sense of why there was a need to anchor the story so firmly in that period.

    Briefly concentrating on a few of the other characters of the story were anemic at best. There are Kat and Hepzibah, the two old friends (think Ya-Ya Sisterhood) of Jessie's mother who know all of the secrets but have about all of the back story of wallpaper. There are the monks of the neighboring abbey who are as two-dimensional. There are some fake saints and saints tales, but these don't add substantially to the story. There is Jessie's brother in California who is mentioned mainly in retrospect; you really have no idea why he has turned to Buddhism and moved so far away.

    When at last Jessie's mother releases her awful memory, it's not so awful; it's just garden-variety grief and guilt over aiding her husband to die (like we didn't figure that out right away).

    It's a waste of time and money.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    LOVED IT

    I read it in three sittings. I LOVED it. I also enjoyed the Secret Life of Bees, but I think this book was FAR BETTER! I think so many people can relate to the feelings of the main character of the book, although many would make difference choices than the character did. I found the book to be an easy read. I would suggest it to my friends.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2014

    Loved it

    Great story

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2013

    This is one of those books that remind how very different I am f

    This is one of those books that remind how very different I am from most people. I saw nothing "spiritual" in this book, just a selfish, rich, narcissitic woman who had a good husband and life (except for her nutty Mother that she hadn't seen in years) but has a lust filled affair with a monk - a virtual stranger, who she decides she is her soul mate and is in LOVE with. after a few minutes of meeting. I find nothing romatic or even passionate about adultery - especially when one of the people is a vowed religious.

    The whole story about the Mother and her friends covering up a virtual murder (assisited suicide - yeah sure) is horrific - that a Priest would help with such a thing and these people allow this CHILD to beleive she had something to do with her fathers death is also sinful.

    Not only that but the book wasn't even well written - I had a hard time finishing it and did so only at the urging of a couple of freinds who now are not friends anymore. There seems to be little regret or true repentance on the part of anyone, (except maybe the Mother but her mental illness may or may not stem from regret) especially the "lovers", who, in thier own selfishness and lust hurt so many other people, especially the womans family - this is a hurt that does not go away - just feeling "stagnant" in one's marriage is hardly a reason to cheat - there are many other ways to find joy in one's life - breaking vows and promises is not the way and trying to make it some great lesson learned is sad. I just never get the idea that a person has to lie and cheat to somehow find "fulfillment" and there is NO spiritual lesson that can be learned by lying, cheating, murder, adultery and breaking solemn vows. The idea that monks would beleive a actual Mermaid had become a woman and then a Saint is just about as ridiculous as the rest of the story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Sue Monk Kidd does it again.

    Just when I was so in love with "The Secret Life of Bees", I read this one and I'm so thrilled with it now. I love her writing and the way she weaves and winds around her characters. I loved it from beginning to end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 25, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Love It!

    This book is so good I could not put it down. I kept it in my purse and read it at every spare moment and it continued to surprise me and kept me engaged in the story. It was a wonderful story and it was written in a way that allows you to be there with the characters. To see what they see and feel what they feel. I love this book. I read the Secret Life of Bees and this story even beats it which is amazing in itself!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 23, 2009

    Worth it!

    I think it was even better than "Bees". If your over thirty and married or ever been married add another star. Sue Monk Kidd is a gifted storyteller whose wit and imagination allow you to throughly lose yourself in this book. It's also a quick read. Great for Book Clubs.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    An Excellent Read!

    If I hadn't read "The Secret Life of Bees", I would consider this one of the best books I have ever read. I did think "The Secret Life of Bees" was a bit better story.... but that may be just my particular interest. I disagree with the discussions of "age groups (40+) unless it is referring to 40 +++. I am 66 and thoroughly enjoyed this book. I find that the age and situation of the heroine in any book can be identified with, no matter what our situations as women. What I am not actually experiencing at the time, does not dim in memory or experience. I think ANY woman could identify with the heroine, and it was a really interesting concept and story. I would recommend anything written by Sue Monk Kidd, and I am looking forward to her next novel.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 26, 2008

    escape your everyday life

    This was a simple story with lively characters. Loved it. Highly Recommend it!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2015

    To who wrote this book? Which is WAY WAY down there

    Look at it. It says. You posted that the day I was born. Hopefully you read this reveiw. Its so weird how some books are like that.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2014

    WhiteStar's AutoBiography

    Names: WhiteLash, WhiteStar <p>
    Teaches: Air, Water,. <p>
    Rank: Legend <p>
    Allies: StoneDragon, NightSky, LuckyLeaf, ScorchedFears <p>
    Name: StoneDragon <p>
    Teaches: Stone, Ice, Earth <p>
    Rank: Legendary Tutor <p>
    Allies: all listed up. <p>
    Name: LuckyLeaf <p>
    Teaches: Plant, Sight <p>
    Rank: Honorable Tutor <p>
    Name:ScorchedFears <p>
    Teaches: Flame, Devoid, Smite <p>
    Rank: Legendary Fighter

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2014

    Lilah's Bio

    L&iota|&alpha<_>h &sigma&#131 N&sigma<_>r&sigma &#22672
    <p>
    Ag&epsilon-
    <br>
    'Round 15 in human years
    <p>
    G&epsilon&eta<_>d&epsilon<_>r-
    <br>
    &female
    <p>
    A&rho&rho&epsilon&alpha<_>r&alpha&eta<_>c&epsilon-
    <br>
    She is a pure sea mermaid; she has never left the water and has never assumed legs; her skin is a pale ingido blue, her spine plated in hard scales; her eyes are aquamarine with amber splashes; hair is like raven feathers, falling past her waist; delicate yet sharp spines frill her face, her eyes arching; her tail is that of a seahorse, small spines and scales ridging it.
    <p>
    P&epsilon<_>rs&sigma&eta&alpha-
    <br>
    ...
    <p>
    O&tau<_>h&epsilon<_>r-
    <br>
    She grew up at sea. Her parents were captured and killed by pirates. She fled the disdraught and came to Noro. She made a few friends and went on a quest to find her parents. She has a run-in with the pirates, who told her her parents were dead. She left after Noro died and came here.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2014

    Aquamarine's bio

    Name:Aquamarine<p>Age:19 gender: &female looks:blond hair with a terquoice streak in her hair,sunkissed skin,a aqua colored tail bf or husband:(i rp him)alexander His age:20 kids:(i rp them too) deven(&male),carl (&male) There ages are:16,18 personality:come and meet me.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2014

    Pearl bio

    Name pearl appearence really long light blonde hair Sunkissed skin tail violet and aqua aqua shell top. Powers heating and freezing. Status single lookin for bf please reply to pearl

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2014

    Cordelias Bio

    Name: Cordelia Stormlen <br>
    Age: 18 <br>
    Gender: ... <br>
    Appearence while dry: Long blonde hair, about midway it is blue that fades into white. Her skin is sunkissed and her legs are longer than most, making her a little taller. Her eyes are a amazing blue. <br>
    Mermaid appearence: her scales are aqua blue. Tail and top. Her hair is mint with blue streaks. <br>
    Crush: iaretiimoiuD. Figure THAT code out ^.^ <br>
    History: Please just ask. <br>
    Personality: Please just meet her <br>
    Other: ask <br>
    ~Cordelia

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 25, 2014

    I agree with the review of Elishka.  I could barely believe this

    I agree with the review of Elishka.  I could barely believe this was a Kidd novel.  Very shallow plot and poorly developed characters.  Protagonist is more whiney brat than adult in crisis.  Brother Thomas is weak beyond words.  I am not bothered about the romance between the two,. I loved The Thorn Birds, but this doesn't even come close.  The whole think was so predictable each sted of the way.  One of the worst books I have ever read

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2014

    @wc

    Byyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeee stop who cares

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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