Fans of Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, will be equally enamored with her beguiling sophomore effort, The Mermaid Chair, which revisits some of the terrain of its predecessor but in an altogether new context. Though the novel centers on a middle-aged woman rather than a young girl, it remains a coming-of-age story of sorts, and its themes of self-discovery, parental loss and the redeeming power of love echo those of Kidd's earlier work.
Jessie Sullivan returns home to the South Carolina island of her youth after finding out that her estranged mother Nelle has committed a bizarre act of self-mutilation. While attempting to uncover the secrets of her mother's tormented past, she meets Brother Thomas, a Benedictine monk from the neighboring abbey, with whom she shares an immediate and powerful attraction. As their relationship unfolds, Jessie undergoes a seismic spiritual, artistic and erotic awakening, shedding the confines of her 20-year marriage and her circumscribed roles as wife and mother. When Nelle's mental state takes a turn for the worse, her eccentric and endearing friends stage a dramatic intervention in which Jessie learns the truth about the death of her beloved father decades earlier. Freed from the guilt and sorrow that have weighed on her since childhood, she is finally able to take possession of herself and begin life anew.
As in the author's previous novel, myth and legend figure prominently in the narrative, here in the form of the title's eponymous chair residing in the island's abbey. Intricately carved with mermaids and dedicated to Senara, a mermaid turned saint, the chair's purported power to answer prayers has long captivated the imagination of hopeful supplicants. But as Jessie discovers with her misguided desire for Brother Thomas, the chair's mythical qualities are no shortcut to enlightenment and serenity. Reconciling the spiritual with the human, The Mermaid Chair is a captivating metaphorical and sensual journey into one woman's soul. Weaving enduring folklore about the seductive and transformative power of mermaids into a modern-day tale of rebirth, the novel shows us that sometimes we need to swim out to sea for the currents to carry us back home.
Joni Rendon writes from Hoboken, New Jersey.