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It took her HOW LONG to write this?!
on July 24, 2005
Many people, myself included, were blown away by THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, Sue Monk Kidd's first offering to the world of contemporary fiction. Many people, myself included, had high expectations when, four years later, Kidd released her second novel, THE MERMAID CHAIR. And what did we hopeful readers get? A disjointed and ridiculous storyline, a thoroughly unlikable heroine, and an overdone cliche that lasts for 352 pages.
THE MERMAID CHAIR tells the story of Jessie Sullivan, a forty-something artist who is bored with her blase life (sound familiar yet?). Her daughter is away at college; her husband, Hugh, a psychiatrist, is loving but busy. On Ash Wednesday of 1988, Jessie gets a call that changes her life forever: Her mother, a devout (almost fanatical) Catholic and a woman still grieving over the death of her husband more than thirty years ago, has cut off her finger with a carving knife, seemingly as penance for some long-ago sin. Jessie, grateful for an excuse to leave her husband, immediately agrees to go stay with her mother on Egret Island off the coast of South Carolina and care for her during her recovery. During the months she stays on the island, Jessie does the following: She falls in love and has an affair with Brother Thomas (a.k.a. Whit), an "almost monk" in the monastery on Egret Island. She reflects on her relationship with her father and learns some painful truths about the real cause of his death. She begins to appreciate the importance of female relationships. She learns more about the Mermaid Chair, a mystical chair at the monastery painted with mermaids and dotted with jewels, and about the myths that inspired its making. And, of course, she gets in touch with herself, discovers who she is, and finds new inspiration to begin painting again. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?
Well, it's not. The affair with Brother Thomas happens too quickly for me to be convinced that it's truly genuine; I just didn't buy in to Kidd's "soul mate" explanation. All the affair did was make me feel sorry for Jessie's husband, Hugh. (And a monk? A MONK? I mean, come ON.) Jessie is thoroughly unlikable and selfish, a heroine just like the ones in the countless other "mid-life crisis" novels that have sprung up in popular fiction lately. And even though Kidd spends a lot of time telling us that Jessie is discovering who she is, I don't really see a lot of growth in the character. As for the rest of the story...Well, it's disjointed; nothing is really tied together in the end. The truths that are revealed about Jessie's father are too long in coming, and when readers finally learn what really happened, the truth isn't all that shocking. And while the Celtic mermaid myth is interesting, I failed to see how it connected in any way with Jessie's plight--which, I think, is what Kidd was trying (but failed) to do. The female relationships that were so prevalent and beautifully-rendered in BEES failed to affect me at all in this book. Kidd's story, while four years in the making, leaves a lot to be desired, and a lot to be fleshed out. She seems to be so desperate to make her readers understand Jessie's mid-life crisis that she completely fails to connect her storylines. (And maybe I would have felt for Jessie more, if Hugh hadn't been such a good guy. Someone should tell Kidd: If you want readers to be sympathetic towards an adulterer, at least make her married to Satan's spawn instead of a sweet, attentive, loving, faithful man.) And while I love novels written in multiple perspectives, Kidd fails to utilize the technique enough to make it effective.
I gave the novel two stars because, while I did not enjoy THE MERMAID CHAIR, I can't deny that Kidd is a stunning writer. (And also, I guess, for sentimental reasons, because I loved BEES so much.) Kidd's prose is lyrical, evocative of Alice Hoffman (which is a high compliment; there's almost no author that can match Hoffman in the prose department). Her descriptions of fictional Egret Island are stunning; her writing has a soothing, almost wave-like quality; she is clearly an expert writer. But in THE MERMAID CHAIR, even her prose went beyond beauty and became corny at times. I was just so disappointed in this novel!
But before you give me that unhelpful vote that all negative reviews get, let me try to redeem myself by giving you recommendations for much better reading:
If you're interested in the whole female mid-life crisis idea, try WE ARE ALL FINE HERE, by Mary Guterson.
If you're interested in novels written (effectively) in multiple perspectives, try SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE or MY SISTER'S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult.
And finally...If you're interested in prose that is always breathtaking and never corny, as well as in an author who successfully combines elements of the magical with everyday events, try anything by the prosaic master, Alice Hoffman.
If you're interested in a cliched story about a woman falling in love with a monk and finding herself in the process, read THE MERMAID CHAIR by Sue Monk Kidd. But let the record show that I'm NOT recommending it!