The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd: A Lakeview Book Club Review

The Mermaid Chair, the second novel by Sue Monk Kidd, explores the life of a woman returning to an island off South Carolina and the decisions she must make.

What an entertaining discussion of The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd this month!

Eight of us had a wide range of reactions to this book. More of us found this selection not to our taste. There was at least one of us who really liked this book. All of us found intriguing elements and some characters or plot devices we really liked. Almost unanimously we found the sex elements of the seduction of the monk to be of a bodice-ripping nature and humorously so. A few skipped that part entirely. Some literally groaned at those sections of the book..

 

One of us thought some of her plot machinations to be similar to Ann Patchett, intricate, interwoven, filled with some suspense and somewhat believable events. Some of the descriptions our group used about this book were, "light, poorly written, titillating, contrived, annoying characters, shocking regarding the finger cutting, "nature held its own" and "like a 10 cent book from a flea market." Yikes! Such comments are a first for our group!

 

The themes we found in this novel were: The Crazy Mother; The Absent Father, Nature as Religion, and Strong Women. These were also themes in The Secret Life of Bees (2002), Sue Monk Kidd's first novel. The Mermaid Chair was her second novel (2005)

 

We discussed the ennui of Jesse, our main character, a frustrated housewife, thinking perhaps she was actually depressed and could become suicidal. As Jesse's daughter leaves for college, her life seems sterile, going nowhere. Her retreat to the island, which was her first home, leads to her discovery of secrets about her parents and into her affair with Whit, the monk. Secrets revealed, mysterious happenings, and illicit sex is definitely the drama needed to pull Jesse out of the doldrums.

 

We liked Whit. Whit was drawn to religion, because of the earthiness of it. He equated it with nature and loved that smell of the earth including that it smelled of manure. We thought his withdrawal from life was, in a way, keeping his love for his deceased wife alive. None of us thought he was a good fit for monastic life and he would not have lasted long there, if it weren't for his nature-measuring duties. His time in the monastery was an escape for him. Whit had thought, that in the monastery, he could live in close relationships with other men, but he found his experience to be a test. All relationships are hard. The monastery, was a variation on a utopia, where members part company with their egos. Such arrangements requiring poverty, chastity and obedience, prevent emotional closeness. Emotional closeness is often the precursor to physical closeness, which is prohibited.

 

While discussing monasteries and convents we brought up the secrecy involved in trying to be perfect, for example, that monks and nuns are not free to talk about who they are. The scandal of the pedophilia in the Catholic Church and the subsequent cover ups were discussed as a by-product of the structural secrecy of religious lives. In contrast, we thought the closeness of the women friends on the island to be more ideal than the relationships of the men in the monastery.

 

Some of the description or use of words seemed really creative and very true, such as when an encounter with the husband of Jesse is described as a "disposable moment in a lifetime of them." We were surprised that Jesse went back to her husband. The marriage wasn't broken; Jesse was flawed!

 

We were surprised her husband took her back at the end of the novel. She didn't deserve that kindness. Her actions had been destructive to her life, her mother's life, her lover's life and her daughter's life. In some ways we thought this novel was like The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Jesse became sexually, spiritually and emotionally "awakened," but rather than end-it-all, as in The Awakening, she went back to the stultifying life of before. Her husband had not changed. He would still be expecting the same things from Jesse.

 

We discussed that Jesse's husband was a psychologist and that Jung was mentioned in the novel. Jesse was damaged by her mistaken guilt over her father's death and then she married an older man, a father figure. In relationships often one partner loves more than another and the one who loves more is a "smotherer." Jesse's renaissance of her art would not be saving that relationship. Jesse walked back into a codependent relationship and so we did not believe she would be satisfied for long by returning. One member did like the realistic veiled hostility from the husband at the end of the novel. At least it wasn't all sweetness and light with Jesse and her husband skipping happily under a rainbow at the end!

 

We also thought that Jesse's daughter was "for the birds" i.e., no support for Jesse. The only changes in any character were in Jesse and no person from her previous life would ever understand those changes.

 

The archetypes of Jung are found in every culture and literature. The extrovert versus the introvert (Jesse and her husband) and the symbols of running water versus stagnation were noted. The island was a microcosm of society.

 

Regarding the novel's suicide, we talked of the scars left on those remaining. The message to those who remain is that "life is not worth living even if you love me.” We noted that the religious taboos against suicide and the judgment of the very religious small community of the island, would both cause enormous harm to everyone involved in the suicide. It, therefore, made more sense to keep the decision a secret, even though there was immense psychic damage to Jesse (for misunderstanding the death) and to Jesse's mother (who participated in the death with the other women).

 

We talked of the trends of assisted suicides today and choices people can and do make, including the unreported help from doctors and, also, families in hospice. The times and religious climate for such choices are somewhat better now than when the events in this novel took place.

 

We liked the strong women on the island who withheld the truth about the father's death and then eventually revealed it to Jesse. They were quirky and interesting, quite their own people, not usually worried what others would think. We understood that the women had to keep the secret.

 

One patron saw the movie which was made of this story and did not care for it. That member of our group particularly did not like the actress who played Jesse, Kim Basinger.

 

There was some humor in The Mermaid Chair and overall this novel seemed somewhat lightweight, especially in comparison to the amazing literature we have read recently, such as The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa or Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. While most of us would not recommend this book, we understand why people like it and we acknowledge that we liked parts of it.

 

Sue Monk Kidd is a successful writer, born in 1948, teaches nursing, works as a nurse, grew up in Georgia and was greatly influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton, a Catholic philosopher and monk. We can see all those influences in this book. We predict she will remain successful with her future writings.

Happy Reading!

Mary Farrell

Lakeview Branch Library

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