Although it held my interest, The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd also disappointed me. I’ll be honest: I haven’t read The Secret Life of Bees by the same author, but I know it has been enormously successful and popular. These facts piqued my interest in reading works by the author. As I love the ocean, The Mermaid Chair’s setting, primarily on Egret Island off South Carolina, attracted me, as did the promise of a new twist on the mid-life crisis story. Yet the book seemed similar to other titles I’ve read - not as imaginative as I had hoped, not entirely believable and too religious for my taste. Before Kidd wrote Bees, she had been primarily a Christian writer, penning books like When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions and God’s Joyful Surprise: Finding Yourself Loved. That said, I expect some women readers will like The Mermaid Chair for just that final reason.
The book centers on a 42-year-old woman, Jessie (she’s a semi-retired painter – as are many female protagonists these days). She is married to Hugh (an extremely tolerant man, by profession a psychiatrist), and they have one daughter, Dee. Jessie’s elderly mother, Nelle, obviously is disturbed (she intentionally cuts not one but two of her fingers off – and she’s a cook for a nearby monastery). During a prolonged visit to her mom, Jessie meets a faith-doubting monk, Thomas, formerly a married lawyer.
After her mom cuts off the first finger, Jessie goes to spend time with her mother, where she meets Brother Thomas. Despite the fact that Jessie appears to have a solid marriage, she falls instantly in love with this man of the cloth. The first sentence of the novel gives this away: “In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh’s wife and Dee’s mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk.” Maybe I’m a skeptic, but does this truly happen to happily married women, especially if the love object seems so unrealistic?
Monks are apparently in fashion these days as fictional lovers. A challenge, forbidden fruit? (Also, note the author's middle name...) This novel has several things in common with The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington (published in 2003). In this book, the protagonist, Rebecca, a single mom (slightly younger than Jessie) with a daughter, paints - or she did, now storing dozens of canvases in her garage. Her mother suffers a life-changing stroke, thus requiring more of her daughter’s attention. And the monk to whom she rents an apartment, Mike, has just left twenty years in the monastery to re-enter civilian life. They fall in love.
Frankly, I preferred Farrington’s story as I found the characters more sympathetic and more believable than those created by Kidd. They were less selfish. That said, The Mermaid Chair weaves a good tale and ends well, quite believably. I was not bored, just sometimes stretched. From the reviews of Bees, it appears that that novel’s characters grow and learn more than those in The Mermaid Chair. So, I suspect, do its readers.