Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair
is the soulful tale of Jessie Sullivan, a middle-aged woman whose stifled dreams and desires take shape during an extended stay on Egret Island, where she is caring for her troubled mother, Nelle. Like Kidd's stunning debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees
, her highly anticipated follow up evokes the same magical sense of whimsy and poignancy.
While Kidd places an obvious importance on the role of mysticism and legend in this tale, including the mysterious mermaid's chair at the center of the island's history, the relationships between characters is what gives this novel its true weight. Once she returns to her childhood home, Jessie is forced to confront not only her relationship with her estranged mother, but her other emotional ties as well. After decades of marriage to Hugh, her practical yet conventional husband, Jessie starts to question whether she is craving an independence she never had the chance to experience. After she meets Brother Thomas, a handsome monk who has yet to take his final vows, Jessie is forced to decide whether passion can coexist with comfort, or if the two are mutually exclusive. As her soul begins to reawaken, Jessie must also confront the circumstances of her father's death, a tragedy that continues to haunt Jessie and Nelle over thirty years later.
By boldly tackling such major themes as love, betrayal, grief, and forgiveness, The Mermaid Chair forces readers to question whether moral issues can always be interpreted in black or white. It is this ability to so gracefully present multiple sides of a story that reinforces Kidd's reputation as a well-respected modern literary voice. --Gisele Toueg
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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, né 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.
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