Potential Book Club Pick: The Mermaid Chair

The main reason I wanted to read this book is that I loved Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. That book sucked me in immediately, and I read it from start to finish in about two hours.

The Mermaid Chair, though lovely in its own way, did not command my attention in quite the same way, and I was taken out of the story several times. I don't fault Kidd for this, though, because I think it was my own background and convictions that led me to be more critical of the characters in this story.


To begin, Jessie's father died when she was nine, and this tragic event has stayed with her for her entire life, and has formed her life, to an extent. This is partially because Jessie believes she is to blame for her father's death; he had been out on his boat and, according to newspaper reports, a spark from his pipe had ignited a gas leak and the boat exploded. Jessie had given him the pipe for Father's Day.

Now, Death has a different effect on everybody. I, personally, tend to compartmentalize it, with a very Scarlett O'Hara attitude: "I'll think about that tomorrow." That's what works for me. Others, like my Aunt Jane, tend to get mad at God and take out that anger on everyone else in the family. Some people like to talk about it; others like to remain respectfully silent, and still others try to pretend it never happened.

For Nelle, Jessie's mother, her husband's death made her crazy-religious. Like, she said the rosary all the time, and she set up shrines, and she spent all her time at church, and she studied up on the saints, and then she cut off her finger.

That last was the reason Jessie returned home to Egret Island (off the coast of South Carolina), having left it many years before. The island was small and sparsely populated, but it had a Benedictine monastery, dedicated to St. Senara, the mermaid saint. The church housed the renowned Mermaid Chair: "If the tourists were lucky and the chapel wasn't rope off, they could sit in the mermaid chair themselves and say a prayer .... For some reason sitting in it was supposed to guarantee you an answer."

It's while Jessie is at the monastery that she first sees Brother Thomas, who is only a few months from taking his final vows.

Long story short: They fall in love, they start having sex, Jessie separates from her husband Hugh, and Jessie's mom cuts off another finger.

I know! Exciting!

So that's all I'm going to tell of the story. You should read it, seriously.

Here are my thoughts, having finished reading the whole thing:

1. Sue Monk Kidd definitely has a gift. The way she combines words is just amazing, and several times I have re-read certain passages because the language is so beautiful.

2. I am not Catholic, so I don't know some of the theology or history cited in the book. I've read reviews that talk about "the feminine mystique" and "the marriage of eroticism and spirituality," and I don't really know what that means. Probably it requires one to have an understanding of symbolism, which I do not. That being said, the book really sparked my interest in the stories of the saints, and made me reflect on what it means (and what it meant, in the past) to be a woman who is a religious leader. Why aren't there more stories of Christian women? And why, when those women are recognized, are they celebrated for their martyrdom or their virginity? What does that mean for me, as a Christian woman today?

3. um ... how do I say this? Don't have sex with monks. This, more than anything else, took me out of the book--several times. I think it is commendable and even awe-inspiring when a person decides to commit himself wholeheartedly to God. Sometimes that leads to a monastery or convent, sometimes it doesn't; however, when a person has decided to commit himself to a life of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, I think it's best to respect that person's boundaries, JESSIE. That being said, Brother Thomas was already doubting his decision to become a monk (hence, his name), not that I am absolving him of any blame in this situation. It just makes me mad when people think that they are not subject to rules or laws or vows, and I was mad at both of them every time they got together.

4. What is the story behind the real Mermaid Chair?
What would I do if my parents split up after 31 years?
Is there such a thing as too much religion? How would I identify it?
Is there any one event in my life that has determined who I am and how I live?

One of the things that makes me remember a book is whether or not it forces me to think, even after I've closed it. The Mermaid Chair definitely stayed with me for a couple of days, and I would recommend it to other readers.

However, in regards to my book club, I would probably choose The Secret Life of Bees over this one.

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