Title: The Mermaid Chair
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: March 31, 2005
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
Inside the abbey of a Benedictine monastery on tiny Egret Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, resides a beautiful and mysterious chair ornately carved with mermaids and dedicated to a saint who, legend claims, was a mermaid before her conversion. Jessie Sullivan’s conventional life has been “molded to the smallest space possible.” So when she is called home to cope with her mother’s startling and enigmatic act of violence, Jessie finds herself relieved to be apart from her husband, Hugh. Jessie loves Hugh, but on Egret Island—amid the gorgeous marshlands and tidal creeks—she becomes drawn to Brother Thomas, a monk who is mere months from taking his final vows. What transpires will unlock the roots of her mother’s tormented past, but most of all, as Jessie grapples with the tension of desire and the struggle to deny it, she will find a freedom that feels overwhelmingly right.
I was initially drawn to this book because I (and much of the rest of the world) enjoyed Kidd's other novel, The Secret Life of Bees. I'd heard mixed reviews about this one, but gave it a try anyway.
Early on, I felt myself getting drawn into the book's atmosphere. The narrator for the audiobook, Eliza Foss, provides a wonderful Southern lilt that perfectly fits my imagined voice for Jessie. She also does a great job providing very distinct voices to all of the other characters in the novel (something that I find can make or break an audiobook for me). And the fictional setting of Egret Island was beautiful--I wished I could explore the island in real life.
However, it wasn't long before I started to dislike Jessie's character. She quickly started to come off as selfish, and constantly had an explanation for why everything she did was right. But what really got me is this: Kidd tries to mask it with flowy prose, but the bottom line is that after 20 years of marriage, Jessie is bored and feeling tied down, so she rectifies the situation by cheating on her husband with another man. I'm not averse to books that deal with infidelity--but I am not a fan of writing about it in such a way that it seems common, easily forgivable. This book does that. Jessie does what she does, explains it away throughout the novel, and maddeningly few pages are given to the way to which it is reacted.
The stated purpose of the book is to explore the connections between "the spiritual and the erotic", but I just don't think this was well-expressed. I found myself not caring very much about the Mermaid Chair aspect (and while there is an interesting mystery surrounding Jessie's family, I found it's conclusion seemed like it was pulled out of thin air, disconnected from other parts of the story).
I think one of the better points of this novel is that you need to find yourself before you can "give" yourself to others. I would have enjoyed the book more if that had shined through a bit brighter. But it was hard for me to focus on that message with the messy way that Jessie's infidelities were handled.
Overall--this book had a lot of promise in the beginning. Great setting, great voice, interesting family mysteries. However, Jessie's perspective did not make me feel sympathetic to her in the least, and you need to be able to root for her at least a little bit if you want to put faith in the story Kidd is trying to tell. An potentially beautiful story with an unfortunate POV problem.