The book: The Mermaid Chair, by Sue Monk Kidd
The edition: Headline Review paperback, with author interview and reading group questions, 403 pages
The story: after 20 years of marriage, Jessie realizes she is feeling unfulfilled when her only daughter leaves home for college. When her mother Nelle, nearing insanity, needs her to go back to her home island, Jessie jumps at the chance of leaving her husband and trying to get to terms with what she is. During her stay she meets Brother Thomas, a man on the verge of taking his final vows as a monk — and something that is supposed to be love brings the two together. Both will have to face a hard decision.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: I decided to buy this book after reading Secret Life of Bees, which had me fascinated. And I kind of liked this one too, really. Kidd is a good author, she creates believable worlds and stories and, most of all, characters. Yet I couldn’t agree with one thing the characters did. I kept wanting to scream at them (I cannot explain why without big, huge spoilers, so I created a new section for that). Pity, though, because the book in itself is a nice read.
The part with spoilers: since the very first page, it is clear that Jessie has some not-so-hidden childhood trauma to face. And she is married to a psy, who even analyses her behaviors as small talk at dinner. Yet no one ever thought she should face her childhood fears? No one realized how bad Nelle’s situation was?
But mostly, as I said, I could not agree with how people behaved. Jessie’s father asking his friends to kill him is awful, he couldn’t possibly believe it would not hurt his children (there would be plenty of room for discussion about self-determination here, but I won’t go there); the priest agreeing with this decision, and taking things through inside the church is almost ludicrous, he should be the one preventing it; brother Thomas tells his superior that he’s not ready to take the vows and all he gets is a talk about “the dark side” (I think this still happens, but less and less; and anyway not in such a case as Thomas, with all his doubts and wrong reasons for entering the monastery in the first place!).
And most of all, Jessie and Hugh: maybe this hit me more just because my marriage is still very young, but it looks like the two of them never took any care to make it last. Love is very nice, but marriage needs commitment, you need to choose each other each day. In this story, Hugh never takes his wife seriously (her art, for example, is just an hobby); and Jessie expects love to supply her with whatever faith in herself and whatever completeness she never found on her own. It made me want to bang their heads together!
What I liked: a well constructed story, descriptions that made the story world come true before my eyes.
What I didn’t like: the way characters behave and their reasons to do what they do.
Language & writing: with two Wondrous Words posts from this book, I have to say I like Kidd’s writing and word choice. Maybe it’s the mix of common and uncommon words that make her descriptions so vivid. What I didn’t appreciate that much was the alternation of first and third person narrative (especially the lone chapter from Hugh’s point of view).
Random thought: I have another book with a mermaid in the title on my TBR shelf. Oh, and of course another book with mermaids on my shelves, as well. Actually, the father in this story, especially at the beginning, did remind me of the father in that story.
Random question: what’s the point in dedicating this kind of story to the author’s son-in-law and daughter-in-law?
Read this if: if you liked Secret Life of Bees, or any other well-constructed novel with a lot of easy sentimentalism and hard feelings thrown in, give it a try.
Counts as: I Want More Challenge book #2, Global Reading Challenge – North America