At first, I was reluctant to read The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, because I knew it was about adultery. But I absolutely loved The Secret Life of Bees by the same author, and was eager to read more of her fiction. I wasn’t sure how I was going to relate to this book, when the narrator, the married Jessie Sullivan, states that she fell in love with a Benedictine monk. But I loved it. The writing was eloquent, whimsical, beautiful, lyrical. All of the supporting characters were vibrant and original; even Jessie’s daughter, Dee, whom we don’t even meet in the story— we only hear of her through phone calls and flashbacks— was a memorable character.
The story starts with Jessie admitting that, after twenty-odd years of marriage to her husband (a therapist, named Hugh), she has become bored and restless. She receives a phone call that her mother has just purposefully chopped off her own finger. Worried by this strange behavior, Jessie returns to her hometown, the fictional Carolina Egret Island, on which there’s a Benedictine monastery. This is where Jessie meets Brother Thomas. Long story short, Jessie will come to cheat on her husband with this monk (and the monk, too, is breaking vows). But at the same time, there’s a mystery unfolding. Jessie’s whole life, she thought her father died in a boat explosion, caused indirectly by her. She had been living with this guilt since childhood. But when she finds something significant in her mother’s drawer, she’s confused: how did her father really die? It was this part of the story, the family mystery, that kept me reading.
But perhaps most remarkable is Kidd’s amazing setting of Egret Island. I was floored by her descriptions of the fictional backdrop; she vividly describes the birds, crabs, flora and fauna of the island so poignantly and tangibly, which was a highly enjoyable aspect of this book. There’s also a spiritual element to the novel, not unlike in The Secret Life of Bees. Not only does Kidd incorporate saints and goddesses and components of Catholicism together, but there’s a lot of consideration of God, philosophy, agnosticism, and the meaning of life told in very feminine overtones—sisterly love, the sacred feminine, things like that. As such, I’d classify it as “chick lit,” but it’s also quite thoughtful and sophisticated. This is one of my favorite books.