on August 27, 2005
Amazon.com's editorial review is so far off base it's stunning. It says "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." I say, what book doesn't "tackle" this issues? They're so universal, few books don't "tackle" them? To say nothing of boldness.
The only thing this book does boldly is advance a quasi-Ayn Rand like "philosophy" that essentially consists of the mantra "Selfishness is good." Well, let me rephrase that. This book toutes subordination to one's every whim and desire and unrepentant selfishness with no thought to external consequences and wraps it up shabbily as the politics of reawakening and philosophy.
If I could communicate one statement to the author, whose "Secret Life Of Bees" was an infinitely more charming book that did not groan under the weight of its preternaturally overburdened excesses and trite ambitions, it would be this: There are probably few protagonists less involving, sympathetic, and interesting than whiny, self-aggrandizing, navel-gazing narcissists.
Reading this review, you might think I don't like books like these. That's not true. Introspection and questioning the fundamentals of one's life as a means to genuine, meaningful, and edifying self-realization and self-actualization can often be a fascinating read. But not this. This is a book about an utterly vapid woman whose obsession with herself and her own thoughts and feelings leads her to some rather shallow and unconvincing experimentations done far better in much older books. You've met people like this. Nothing fascinates them more than themselves, and they're endlessly questioning the meaning of their thoughts, feelings, etc. like they are the center of the universe. That's not interesting.
Of course the author throws in the by-now-stereotypical "grave misfortune involving parents from childhood that was never dealt with that must be dealt with now" for good measure. Ugh. There's no growth, there's no learning going on here. If nothing else I've said about this book stays with you, then let this pronouncement - this book is an exercise in what happens people when they become too inwardly fixated to the point of narcissistic obsession. There's no growth, there's no learning.
To contrast, a number of years ago I read Graham Joyce's "Dark Sister" about a bored housewife who, after years of dutiful service to his husband, came, through magic of sorts, around to a legitimate exploration of what her life could be, especially in regards to her independence from her odious husband. It did so in a charming style that wasn't condescending or overly cloying, unlike this novel, and while it made the housewife's concerns paramount and somewhat inwardly focused, it did so without all of the annoying, whiny "Me! Me! Me!" prattling that passes as self-discovery in this book.
In short, I wouldn't recommend this book at all, unless you think self-discovery through unremittant self-indulgence and melodramatic emotional posturing sounds like a good time.
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!
on August 29, 2005
It's hard to believe that the same pen wrote both The Secret Life of Bees and Ther Mermaid Chair. The former was a wonderful story beautifully told. The characters were engaging, the situation engrossing, the plot carefully knit, the language a pleasure to read and savor. The latter book, on the contrary, is a totally ordinary piece of third-tier woman's magazine fiction. A terrible disappointment on every level: characters that are poorly developed, a plot lacking in originality, as is -- with few exceptions -- the use of the English language. At the many knots left untied, my own reaction was "who cares anyway?" Bad sign, Ms. Kidd.
I suppose that just about any follow-up to a novel as successful as The Secret Life of Bees will sell itself, and editors know that. But they shouldn't assume that we readers will continue to buy anything at all that has Kidd's name on it. Those who have read both The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair now know that you can't judge a book by its cover -- or by its author.
on June 1, 2005
I read Secret Life of Bees when it first came out, and immediately deemed it as a moderen day classic and one of the best books that I have ever read. Therefore, I could hardly wait to begin The Mermaid Chair.
The novel begins with a promising start and Sue Monk Kidd's descriptions of the island and the ocean itself are absolutely breathtaking. One of her great strengths is her magical way with words and how she can make the reader feel as if you are walking on Egret Island.. This novel is also very rich with its religious symbology and metaphors, as well as some of the explorations of the feminine mystique.
One of the things that blew me away about "Bees" were the too-good-to-be-true characters. Lily was one of the most believable protagonists in years, while the three sisters were incredibly rich characters. However, in Mermaid the characters are sketches of themselves with no real meat. It seems as if Kidd intended these characters to be something more, but only drew them out in pencil.
I liked what I saw of Kat, as well as Benne. But couldn't Kidd have developed them? I would have been so much more attached if she had....
Even Jessie, as the narrator is depicted as shallow and insensitive. I would have loved to have heard more from Nelle instead of her being stereotyped as "the crazy woman". What was her perspective on thing?
As for the romance factor--don't get me wrong. I love romance, but it has to be classy and well done. There has to be a conncection of the characters falling in love, as well as not too much of the lovey-dovey factor. Tracy Chevallier does a very classy job of writing romance, if you want an example. With Jessie and Whit, it seems as if Jessie just wanted him to fill the gap not because there was a "connection". She hardly thought of her daughter and her husband--and I understand that she was going through a midlife crisis but couldn't she have dealt with this issue in another way?
And in general, I began to feel as if I was reading a harlequin romance novel in the middle of the book!
I would have loved for this novel to have been more about the island itself as well as the religious aspect. Leave Whit alone, and have Jessie deal with her father's death and the issues with her mother, for this is where the real problem lies. If the novel had only dealt with this aspect, Jessie could have "found herself" just as well.
I gave this novel three stars because of the beautiful descriptions and religious symobology, as well as the actual ending of the book; which was very moving. However, my advice is not to waste your money on the hardcover--wait for the paperback addition, or better yet borrow it from the library or a friend.
on August 29, 2005
What a disappointment! "The Secret Life of Bees," Monk's previous book, was original. It featured a believable heroine and an interesting cast of supporting characters, even if its ending was contrived. Reviewers wrote that this book was even better, so....I had high hopes.
The book is the trite, oh-so-often-told story of a middle age woman who is discontent despite having unlimited money, a wonderful child, and a wildly handsome, incredibly wonderful, professionally successful husband.
She runs to the aid of the mother she has not visited in seven years -- in large part because mom hated the last birthday present she gave her -- and, huge surprise!, falls in love with the first man who crosses her path. The attraction is all the stronger, and the sex amazing, surprise again!, because he is unavailable.
There are two predictably eccentric minor characters, and the mother is so thinly drawn that it is difficult to summon a mental picture of her.
There is practically zero suspense as the main character, the woman fleeing a perfect life, is not interesting enough to inspire much interest in the details of a trauma that she endured at age 9 and that has colored her relationship with her mother.
on April 6, 2005
Sue Monk Kidd is a marvelous wordsmith. Before writing her two current novels, she was an author of several Christian books: "When The Heart Waits"(1990) and "God's Joyful Surprise" (1987). Her religious books asked the difficult questions concerning life that other Christian fare would normally miss -- hence it is no surprise that her new novel, "The Mermaid Chair" deals with the difficult questions that other novelists avoid.
"The Mermaid Chair" examines love from many perspectives: married life and obligations, an erotic and spiritual affair, parental love and the comfort of an old homestead. I love this book because choices need to be made and the choices are not always clear-cut.
American popular fiction rarely deals with the inner spiritual life --- this is a novel that integrates the spiritual with the mundane of our lives. After the reader finishes this novel, go out and read her other books. They are just as good.
on August 24, 2005
This novel is the worst that I have ever read. Several times I found myself deciding not to finish. However, due to sheer force of will I persisted and finished this odious task. It was massively offensive; the author purposely tried to insult the Christian religion on every page. Her blatant sacrilege and blasphemy were intolerable and never ending. Also, her characters were banal and vexatious. For instance the main character, Jessie, was an incredibly self absorbed egomaniac and became immensely difficult to tolerate. She continually complained that she and her husband had become "too glued together"; her marriage was too perfect, which from her warped perspective did not enable her to be as selfish as possible. Thereupon, she embarked on an affair with another man, Brother Tomas (a monk), whom she did not even love. As the novel progressed she occasionally spoke of the mystery surrounding her mother's self inflicted mutilations, the only slightly interesting part of the entire novel. Mostly, she went on chapter long diatribes about how extreme selfishness and utter disregard for others' feelings was not only acceptable but holy. She continually beatified herself causing the reader to roll their eyes. Finally, in the conclusion, she came to an "enlightenment" and married herself, SERIOUSLY! She repeated the marriage vows to herself and swore that thence forward her life would be dedicated only to fulfilling her every whim and desire. Brother Tomas, the irreligious, irrational, and irritating monk often praised her for her extreme devotion to herself. I am surprised he did not elevate her to sainthood. She never felt true sorrow for the pain that she inflicted on her husband and daughter. They were simply sacrifices on the alter of her boundless ego. None of the characters, with the exception of Hugh her husband, inspired my sympathy nor my interest. The novel never actually went anywhere, instead it was just an extremely long and tiresome sermon on her bizarre new-age philosophies. A thoroughly abysmal and atrocious novel fraught with irrational arguments and lifeless characters. Do not waste you time nor your money!
on August 25, 2005
I loved The Secret Life of Bees and was expecting to love this one. I was very disappointed. I may as well have read a Harlequin romance. The plot was a predictable cliche, the characters were unsympathetic, and it was boring. I would recommend readers skip this one and hope the next novel is better.
on August 11, 2005
I give this work two stars only because of the prose. It's beautifully crafted. Few writers can string words together with as much imagery and impact. Beyond that I say shame on the agent, shame on the publisher and shame on the writer for falling into the trap of a quick second work to capitalize on the success of The Secret Life of Bees. I can't see myself rushing out to buy her third book, so unless this is the last book, it's self defeating to crank us this kind of pablum.
The plot--if we could dignify it as such--can pretty much be summed up as bored housewife/artist gets turned on by island monk with whom she has an affair, and all parading under the guise of spiritual awakening with a bit of lust as the fuel. Problem is, she doesn't develop any sensible rationale for her actions (say, an abusive husband) and, worse, she fails in her attempt to establish a credible reason for Father Thomas to leave his secular life and become a monk. Yes, she tries, but her explanations are as cliched and contrived as everything else in this work--like the crazy mama and the modern Aunt Jemima stirring her gumbo pot and looking out for the good white folks of the island, including sweet little Jessie who she practically raised herself.
I suppose lust is as good a reason as any to have an extramarital affair but why with this wimpy monk? Is it the forbidden love cliche? And why is it a best seller among women? Seems to me if a male protagonist did in a book what Jessie does, both the author and the book would be trashed on Ophrah and Everywhere Else. But wait, what am I thinking? Wasn't Bridges of Madison County a blockbuster? Isn't there a double standard here, ladies? Yes, I'm a guy and I just don't get it.
Finally, the absolute worst part for me was the shift from 1st person Jessie into 3rd person Brother Thomas. Why did her agent and publisher let her get away with this? Some broken rules work. This one doesn't. First, because it was a jarring transition. The second reason is because we learn nothing new or different about Pere Thomas by being in his head. Jessie has already told us--or it's revealed in dialogue with Jessie. Talk about redundancy and the need to edit.
Okay, I'm getting heated here, so I'm going to sign off before I take away that second star. I want my money back. Bottom line is that fans of Ms. Kidd should read the customer reviews first before before rushing out to buy her next book.
on November 14, 2005
I loved this for the South Carolina lowcountry setting and I enjoyed the writing. My one major beef was the character of Jesse and her supposed need for "solitude of being". About half-way through the book (maybe earlier) I began to wonder why in the world she was unhappy with her marriage to a handsome, successful and most importantly LOVING husband. So he didn't always listen to her and was a psychiatric know-it-all. Not major crimes in my book.Did she strike anyone else as a tad self-absorbed? But the kicker was here she is leaving to reconnect with her mother and "find herself" (Oh, PLEASE) and within DAYS she falls right into the arms of another man. I know...it's a romance story....but was anyone else annoyed that she leaves her husband to "find herself" and "finds herself" by having an affair with another equally nice,gorgeous, almost perfect in every way male??? OK, so she's filling the hole in her heart of losing her father. Hhhmmm. Note to author: there are actually women out there who find themselves without the benefit of great sex and a passionate affair AND a husband who takes them back. Usually we're so busy working and paying bills we don't have the luxury to sit by the marsh and watch egrets and naked monks all day but maybe I'm just jealous. I don't mean to sound hostile....the book must have hit a nerve with me!