Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd


Rating: (Recommended)




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The success of Sue Kidd’s debut novel, Secret Life of Bees, will lead many readers to pick up a copy of her new novel, The Mermaid Chair. In this second novel, protagonist Jessie Sullivan is called home to Egret Island to care for her elderly mother, who just chopped off her finger with a cleaver. On the island, Sullivan and other characters find mystery, romance, betrayal, grief, forgiveness and redemption. Whereas Secret Life of Bees had the power of compelling characters as its major strength, The Mermaid Chair has greater complexity in relationships, and more moral ambiguity than some readers will appreciate. Like its predecessor, the story is memorable and engaging. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter Fifteen, pp. 112-115:


When he’d gone, I sat down in the mermaid chair. It was hard and uncomfortable; some said it was made from a single piece of birch, though I imagine that was just more apocrypha. I pushed my spine to the back of the seat and felt my toes lift off the floor. At the other end of the church, the monks began to chant. I could not tell if it was in Latin. Their voices came in waves, flooding into the arched chapel.

My thoughts must have been spiraling up near the ceiling for a few minutes, soaring around with the chant, because all of a sudden I felt my concentration yanked downward into my body, which I realized was aroused and alive. I felt as if I were running, but I was perfectly still. Everything around me seemed to blaze up and breathe—colors, edges, the crumbs of light falling obliquely over my shoulders.

My hands were resting on the chair arms, the place where the curving backs of the mermaids blend into their fish tails. I moved my fingers around and underneath until I was gripping the nubby carving of the tails like a pair of reins. I had the sensation inside of wanting to stop myself and at the same time to let myself go.

My feelings about Thomas had been such a muddle. I’d let them slosh around in me like dirty water in the bottom of a boat, but now, sitting in the mermaid chair, I felt the sediment settle to the bottom, and everything was very clear to me. I wanted him with an almost ferocious desire.

Of course, the second I allowed myself the thought, I felt a reverberating shock, complete disgust, and yet my shame was inconsequential next to the force of my heart. It was as if something had come bursting through a wall. I thought of the Magritte painting, the locomotive thundering out of the fireplace.

The antiphons rocked back and forth in the air. I made myself take a long, slow breath, wanting the chair to live up to its reputation and do something, to work a miracle and make the overwhelming feelings evaporate. My desire, however, only seemed to grow. A desire for someone who, I reminded myself, was not Hugh. I didn’t even know him, really. And yet I felt as if I did. As if I knew the deepest things inside him.

That’s how it had been with Hugh all those years ago. Like meeting someone I already knew. Falling in love with Hugh had been like coming down with a terrible bout of insanity~ I’d been consumed with him, almost sick with longing, unable to concentrate on anything else, and there had been no way to cure it, not that I’d wanted to then. There was no assertion of will when it came to falling in love. The heart did what it did. It had its own autonomy, like a country unto itself.

The air was poached with incense, vibrating with medieval singing. I pictured Thomas out there in one of the choir stalls and felt that same sense of being consumed, engulfed with wanting.

Worst of all, I could feel myself giving over to all of this, to whatever was coming. To a Great Ecstasy and a Great Catastrophe.

The realization frightened me, which is too mild a way of saying it. I’d not thought I was capable of falling in love again.

Earlier, when Thomas had asked me about myself, I’d not been able to speak, and I wondered now if that was because my sense of myself had been coming apart. I’d come to the island, and everything had disintegrated.

I closed my eyes. Stop this. Stop.

I hadn’t meant it as a prayer, but when I opened my eyes, I was struck with the idea that maybe it had been, and I had a momentary surge of childish hope that now some power-that-be would be obligated to grant my request. Then it would all stop. The feelings, everything, and I would be absolved. Safe.

Of course, I didn’t really believe that. Sit in the chair. Say a prayer—t was juvenile.

Yet even Thomas, who didn’t believe it either, had said there was power in the chair. And there was. I felt it. I felt it as an unraveling of some kind.

‘What if that was the real power in the chair—its ability to undo you? What if it fished up the most forbidden feelings inside a person and splayed them open?

I stood up. Unable to face strolling back through the church in front of the monks, I blundered around in the ambulatory for a minute, opening the wrong doors before I located the sacristy’s back door, leading out of the church.

I hurried across the quadrangle, the dense air hitting my face. Instead of the fog’s lifting, as it had tried to do earlier when a lone curl of sunlight had appeared, the air had turned to soup.

When I stepped through the gate into Mother’s backyard, I stopped, standing in the same spot where I’d lingered that night Thomas had walked us back to the house. I placed my palms on top of the brick wall and stared at the mortar, pocked with holes from the salt air. Across the yard the oleander bushes swayed, their greenness barely visible.

He’s a monk, I thought.

Wanting to believe that this would save me.


The Mermaid Chair may be the perfect book to pack for a short flight, or a trip to the beach this Summer.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2005 issue of Executive Times


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