I honestly can’t make up my mind or my heart about Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, the Mermaid Chair. In my eyes, the Mermaid Chair certainly doesn’t live up to the magic spell cast by Kidd’s first novel, the Secret Life of Bees (which you should read if you haven’t already).
Much like my experience reading the Secret Life of Bees, it took me more than a few chapters to really “get into” the Mermaid Chair (and even then, my enthusiasm was still touch and go for the greater part of the novel). The Mermaid Chair essentially details the mid-life crisis of the central character, Jessie, who experiences a life-altering transformation through coming to terms with a past (and present) tragedy, in addition to having an affair with a monk. At its core, the Mermaid Chair is a story about the never-ending ways in which we as humans struggle to define (and redefine) ourselves with time. Jessie, a woman who is discontent with solely fulfilling her roles as both mother and wife, abandons everything for a love affair. She eventually realizes that she is really seeking a reinvention of self, and the space to grow into and to truly redefine herself.
There is a key phrase that is repeated within the novel: “a solitude of being.” Essentially, the phrase is referring to the human necessity to be alone and have the space to reconnect with oneself (a sort of self-discovery, if you will). I really believe that Solitude of Being (or something a little jazzier) would have encapsulated the thematic significance of the novel much better than the title: Mermaid Chair. While the “mermaid chair” itself does exist as a physical object (and an important one at that) within the novel, as the title, it seems to lack imagination and (let’s face it) it sounds blasé.
It appeared to me throughout the novel that Sue Monk Kidd tried to include too much in terms of her storyline. Right off the bat, readers learn about the strained relationships Jessie has with her husband and her mother, and her borderline obsession with the death of her father. Along with all of this, Kidd details the steamy relationship between the monk, Brother Thomas (including his back-story) and Jessie. To me, the fascinating theme in the Mermaid Chair is that of self-exploration and self-knowledge. It seemed as if the majority of the plot choices did not enhance or support this theme in the best possible way.
I can sum up the few additional problems I encountered along my reading journey in 3 specific points. Firstly, there was a very quick beginning and end to the affair between Jessie and Brother Thomas (or Whit, as he refers to himself outside of the cloistered setting). The whole affair seemed a bit too easy and untroubled…Neither Jessie or Brother Thomas appeared tormented or torn about the repercussions of their actions; and at the end, Kidd explained the entire affair away quickly and without much fanfare or introspection. The entirety of the affair was integral in the formation of both Jessie and Brother Thomas, but Sue Monk Kidd ignored the raw reality of an affair from the points of view of both characters.
Secondly, the novel itself appeared to lack consistency and order. Sue Monk Kidd devoted the majority of her novel to retelling the story from the point of view of Jessie (understandable…since she is the protagonist). However, Kidd also allowed Brother Thomas to share his insights and voice with readers in random chapters throughout the Mermaid Chair. And, near the end of the novel, Kidd even devotes one chapter to share the perspective of Hugh, Jessie’s husband. The chapters revolving around the perspectives of Brother Thomas and Hugh help to transform both characters from flat to round. I personally believe that the chapters which showcase Hugh’s voice as well as that of Brother Thomas gave validity to the story, and made both characters appear more relatable. In an attempt to allow readers to greater relate to the actions/ thoughts of all the characters, Sue Monk Kidd perhaps should’ve allowed Hugh’s voice (or even that of Jessie’s mother and father) to be heard from more often. To me, the delineation of narrative choices for each chapter seemed a bit haphazard and overall, ineffective.
Lastly, Jessie retells the story of the summer of her affair in flashback form; the story that she weaves has already occurred. Personally, I think that the Mermaid Chair might have been more interesting and attention holding if it had been expressed in the present tense rather than through Jessie reliving her past memories.
I believe that a fantastic writer has the ability to make a reader feel down to the core of their being, a deep connection to a character’s situation and emotions; and a truly talented writer transports a reader to another time and place. And, to be completely honest, I remained firmly planted (mind, body and spirit) in my house while reading the Mermaid Chair (no transporting happened). On the other hand, I also cannot truthfully dismiss this novel; it was an imaginative story line and communicated a clear and important theme. Sue Monk Kidd is a good writer, but she didn’t hit this one out of the ballpark in my eyes.