The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

“At forty-two, I had never done anything that took my own breath away, and I suppose now that was part of the problem–my chronic inability to astonish myself. I promise you, no one judges me more harshly than I do myself; I caused a brilliant wreckage. Some say I fell from grace; they’re being kind. I didn’t fall. I dove.”

– Sue Monk Kidd, “The Mermaid Chair”

Review:

Before I begin, to be fair, I actually liked the end of this book and thought it took my experience from what was going to be a solid two star read to something that felt more like a four out of five. But the more I work on this review, the angrier I get and the more I realize I dislike major aspects of the book. So I’m setting my rating at three stars. If I didn’t want to completely review every book I read, I probably would have abandoned this one around the half way point and not felt like I was missing out on anything. I loved the other two books I’ve read by Sue Monk Kidd (The Invention of Wings and The Book of Longings). I did not love this one, but see how writing it was necessary for the author’s development to write The Book of Longings.

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd doesn’t feel like a Sue Monk Kidd book, not until the last few pages. The story starts with an unhappily married middle aged woman, Jessie, returning home to “the island” to take care of her mother after her mother intentionally chopped off her own finger. Jessie arrives home to see her mother planting the finger in the dirt. It’s obvious that her mother isn’t well. Not only does Jessie feel the need to solve the mystery of her mother’s mental illness and extreme behavior, but also her connection to the local monks, and her own spiritual and marital restlessness. Perhaps this time away from home can be healing for Jessie too.

To be clear, I don’t like books that center on affairs. Given the back of the book, I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler to say that Jessie has an affair with one of the monks who has yet to take his final and lasting vows. Had there been any chemistry between Jessie and Brother Thomas (real name: Whit), I might have been able to put my personal preferences aside. But I had no idea why Jessie and Whit were so hot for one another or why they were suddenly “IN LOVE”. It felt like I was reading a junior high romance novel. It felt so strange for Jessie to be so invested in a romantic dalliance when her mother was so clearly struggling. This gave me a strong dislike for her character. I became far more invested in her mother, Kat and her mother’s friends Hepzibah and Nelle.

The ending of the story was both incredibly uplifting and deeply unsatisfying. Initially the ending nearly redeemed everything I hated about the story. Some of the final thoughts about finding ourselves really resonated with me. The conclusion of Kat’s story was powerful, so powerful that I wish the novel had been from her perspective. However, upon further reflection after finishing the novel, Jessie’s thoughts on forgiveness ring hollow when she does essentially nothing to work toward healing for her family after her lack of attention and her affair. Mercy is the possibility of reconciliation, not just a free pass and forgiveness with no work on the part of the one who broke the relationship in the first place.

I settled on a three star rating when trying to reconcile how I initially felt upon finishing the book with how I feel now writing a review and thinking more deeply about the book. I’m not sure it accurately reflects how I feel about this book, but it feels most fair. I’d say more about this book and on the topic of forgiveness, but I’m ready to move on from this one. It’s left a bad taste in my mouth, despite being a “three star read”.

“All my life I’ve thought I needed someone to complete me, now I know I need to belong to myself.”

– Sue Monk Kidd, “The Mermaid Chair”

Pros:

  • The island with the Benedictine monastery makes for a very interesting setting.
  • The ending that wraps up the mother’s story completely and feels satisfying from that regard.

Cons:

  • There is no chemistry in the romance. I didn’t have a clue why the main characters were so drawn to each other and didn’t care if they stayed together or not.
  • The affair is barely dealt with emotionally from the main character’s perspective.
  • The main character expects forgiveness without doing the work to reconcile and repair what has been lost.

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐ (maybe?)

“There’s release in knowing the truth no matter how anguishing it is. You come finally to the irreducible thing, and there’s nothing left to do but pick it up and hold it. Then, at last, you can enter the severe mercy of acceptance.”

– Sue Monk Kidd, “The Mermaid Chair”

Recommended For:

  • those having a crisis of identity as a mother or wife

Books to Read if You Loved The Mermaid Chair:

  • The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
  • The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (same author!)

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • What is a trope or plot device that you absolutely do not like to see in books?
  • Can you still like a book that you find offensive in some aspects?
  • When an author disappoints you, do you give them another chance or steer clear?

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