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September 26, 2022

Review in Haiku: The Mermaid Chair

By Katrina Stonoff

Called home by mother's
mutilation, Jessie finds
love with local monk.

Although I read Sue Monk Kidd's debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, months after it ran through and disappeared from all the bestseller lists, I loved it.

It took me a long time, however, to pick up The Mermaid Chair, at least partly because every review I read compared it unfavorably to Life of Bees. But when I found myself in bed during an extended illness, I reached for it.

And I don't think the reviewers were fair. Or accurate. While Mermaid Chair is, indeed, no Secret Life, it's a good novel in its own right. And Secret Life was stellar; it would have been extremely difficult to repeat, yet most reviewers seemed to expect the same thing all over again, only completely different.

If Mermaid Chair had been published with any other name on it, I believe the reviews would have been unqualified.

Mermaid Chair is a beautiful book. Some of the passages (the "Prologue," for instance) speak so strongly, you can smell the salt in the air and hear the gulls.

Jessie, at 42, is a comfortable wife and mother -- until she is suddenly called home when her mother mutilates herself by whacking off a finger with a butcher knife. Yes, on purpose.

Nelle, Jessie's mother, is an unforgettable character. I will always see her with wild, windblown hair, though I'm not sure Kidd ever described her that way. But she is a woman of spirit and fire, trapped in a mundane world with only a horrible secret for company.

The image of the mermaid's chair itself, an ancient seat that is central to the religious rituals of a small South Carolina barrier island, is exquisite: hard-carved from a single piece of wood and rather pagan for its honored place in the island's monastery.

Formerly a painter, Jessie forms shadowboxes: miniature scenes that sound delightful even in words. But she doesn't take them seriously as art, and though she doesn't realize it, she longs to paint.

I do have some issues with Mermaid Chair. I found the whole theme of illicit-affair-with-a-priest uncomfortable, especially since both characters involved seemed to accept it as a gift of God, with little or no guilt (which seemed out of character). I was almost equally uncomfortable with the callow way the main character treated her marital vows (fidelity, if promised, happens to be something I value).

But overall, I thought Mermaid Chair was lovely. Sure, it slumped a little from Secret Life, but the latter story left a lot of room to slump.

I'll definitely buy the next Sue Monk Kidd. And I won't wait for the paperback this time.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-03-24
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