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The Mermaid Chair

Sue Monk Kidd - Author

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ISBN 9781101201039 | 368 pages | 07 Mar 2006 | Penguin | 18 - AND UP
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A dazzling novel of passion and spirituality—the instant blockbuster bestseller from the author of The Secret Life of Bees

Sue Monk Kidd’s phenomenal debut, The Secret Life of Bees, became a runaway bestseller that is still on the New York Times bestseller list more than two years after its paperback publication. Now, in her luminous new novel, Kidd has woven a transcendent tale that will thrill her legion of fans. Telling the story of Jessie Sullivan—a love story between a woman and a monk, a woman and her husband, and ultimately a woman and her own soul—Kidd charts a journey of awakening and self-discovery illuminated with a brilliance that only a writer of her ability could conjure.

“Book clubs, start your engines. . . . [The Mermaid Chair] is a tapestry strengthened by bonds between women that bridge pain and loss.”
—USA Today
“The pages all but turn themselves.” —Parade
“Soulful in its probing of the human heart.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Kidd draws connections from the feminine to the divine to the erotic that a lesser writer wouldn’t see, and might not have the guts to follow.” —Time
“It’s hard to put this book down for things like eating and sleeping.” —Elle


February 17, 1988, I opened my eyes and heard a procession of sounds: first the phone going off on the opposite side of the bed, rousing us at 5:04 a.m. to what could only be a calamity, then rain pummeling the roof of our old Victorian house, sluicing its sneaky way to the basement, and finally small puffs of air coming from Hugh’s lower lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome.

Twenty years of this puffing. I’d heard it when he wasn’t even asleep, when he sat in his leather wing chair after dinner, reading through the column of psychiatric journals rising from the floor, and it would seem like the cadence against which my entire life was set.

The phone rang again, and I lay there, waiting for Hugh to pick up, certain it was one of his patients, probably the paranoid schizophrenic who’d phoned last night convinced the CIA had him cornered in a federal building in downtown Atlanta.

A third ring, and Hugh fumbled for the receiver. “Yes, hello,” he said, and his voice came out coarse, a hangover from sleep.

I rolled away from him then and stared across the room at the faint, watery light on the window, remembering that today was Ash Wednesday, feeling the inevitable rush of guilt.

My father had died on Ash Wednesday when I was nine years old, and in a convoluted way, a way that made no sense to anyone but me, it had been at least partially my fault.

There had been a fire on his boat, a fuel-tank explosion, they’d said. Pieces of the boat had washed up weeks later, including a portion of the stern with Jes-Sea printed on it. He’d named the boat for me, not for my brother, Mike, or even for my mother, whom he’d adored, but for me, Jessie.

I closed my eyes and saw oily flames and roaring orange light. An article in the Charleston newspaper had referred to the explosion as suspicious, and there had been some kind of investigation, though nothing had ever come of it—things Mike and I’d discovered only because we’d sneaked the clipping from Mother’s dresser drawer, a strange, secret place filled with fractured rosaries, discarded saint medals, holy cards, and a small statue of Jesus missing his left arm. She had not imagined we would venture into all that broken-down holiness.

I went into that terrible sanctum almost every day for over a year and read the article obsessively, that one particular line: “Police speculate that a spark from his pipe may have ignited a leak in the fuel line.”

I’d given him the pipe for Father’s Day. Up until then he had never even smoked.

I still could not think of him apart from the word “suspicious,” apart from this day, how he’d become ash the very day people everywhere—me, Mike, and my mother—got our foreheads smudged with it at church. Yet another irony in a whole black ensemble of them.

“Yes, of course I remember you,” I heard Hugh say into the phone, yanking me back to the call, the bleary morning. He said, “Yes, we’re all fine here. And how are things there?”

This didn’t sound like a patient. And it wasn’t our daughter, Dee, I was sure of that. I could tell by the formality in his voice. I wondered if it was one of Hugh’s colleagues. Or a resident at the hospital. They called sometimes to consult about a case, though generally not at five in the morning.

I slipped out from the covers and moved with bare feet to the window across the room, wanting to see how likely it was that rain would flood the basement again and wash out the pilot light on the hot-water heater. I stared out at the cold, granular deluge, the bluish fog, the street already swollen with water, and I shivered, wishing the house were easier to warm.

I’d nearly driven Hugh crazy to buy this big, impractical house, and even though we’d been in it seven years now, I still refused to criticize it. I loved the sixteen-foot ceilings and stained-glass transoms. And the turret—God, I loved the turret. How many houses had one of those? You had to climb the spiral stairs inside it to get to my art studio, a transformed third-floor attic space with a sharply slanted ceiling and a skylight—so remote and enchanting that Dee had dubbed it the “Rapunzel tower.” She was always teasing me about it. “Hey, Mom, when are you gonna let your hair down?”

That was Dee being playful, being Dee, but we both knew what she meant—that I’d become too stuffy and self-protected. Too conventional. This past Christmas, while she was home, I’d posted a Gary Larson cartoon on the refrigerator with a magnet that proclaimed me world’s greatest mom. In it, two cows stood in their idyllic pasture. One announced to the other, “I don’t care what they say, I’m not content.” I’d meant it as a little joke, for Dee.

I remembered now how Hugh had laughed at it. Hugh, who read people as if they were human Rorschachs, yet he’d seen nothing suggestive in it. It was Dee who’d stood before it an inordinate amount of time, then given me a funny look. She hadn’t laughed at all.

To be honest, I had been restless. It had started back in the fall—this feeling of time passing, of being postponed, pent up, not wanting to go up to my studio. The sensation would rise suddenly like freight from the ocean floor—the unexpected discontent of cows in their pasture. The constant chewing of all that cud.

With winter the feeling had deepened. I would see a neighbor running along the sidewalk in front of the house, training, I imagined, for a climb up Kilimanjaro. Or a friend at my book club giving a blow-by-blow of her bungee jump from a bridge in Australia. Or—and this was the worst of all—a TV show about some intrepid woman traveling alone in the blueness of Greece, and I’d be overcome by the little river of sparks that seemed to run beneath all that, the blood/sap/wine, aliveness, whatever it was. It had made me feel bereft over the immensity of the world, the extraordinary things people did with their lives—though, really, I didn’t want to do any of those particular things. I didn’t know then what I wanted, but the ache for it was palpable.

I felt it that morning standing beside the window, the quick, furtive way it insinuated itself, and I had no idea what to say to myself about it. Hugh seemed to think my little collapse of spirit, or whatever it was I was having, was about Dee’s being away at college, the clichéd empty nest and all that.

Last fall, after we’d gotten her settled at Vanderbilt, Hugh and I’d rushed home so he could play in the Waverly Harris Cancer Classic, a tennis tournament he’d been worked up about all summer. He’d gone out in the Georgia heat for three months and practiced twice a week with a fancy Prince graphite racket. Then I’d ended up crying all the way home from Nashville. I kept picturing Dee standing in front of her dorm waving good-bye as we pulled away. She touched her eye, her chest, then pointed at us—a thing she’d done since she was a little girl. Eye. Heart. You. It did me in. When we got home, despite my protests, Hugh called his doubles partner, Scott, to take his place in the tournament, and stayed home and watched a movie with me. An Officer and a Gentleman. He pretended very hard to like it.

The deep sadness I felt in the car that day had lingered for a couple of weeks, but it had finally lifted. I did miss Dee —of course I did—but I couldn’t believe that was the real heart of the matter.

Lately Hugh had pushed me to see Dr. Ilg, one of the psychiatrists in his practice. I’d refused on the grounds that she had a parrot in her office.

I knew that would drive him crazy. This wasn’t the real reason, of course—I have nothing against people’s having parrots, except that they keep them in little cages. But I used it as a way of letting him know I wasn’t taking the suggestion seriously. It was one of the rare times I didn’t acquiesce to him.

"So she’s got a parrot, so what?” he’d said. “You’d like her.” Probably I would, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to go that far—all that paddling around in the alphabet soup of one’s childhood, scooping up letters, hoping to arrange them into enlightening sentences that would explain why things had turned out the way they had. It evoked a certain mutiny in me.

I did occasionally, though, play out imaginary sessions with Dr. Ilg in my head. I would tell her about my father, and, grunting, she would write it down on a little pad—which is all she ever seemed to do. I pictured her bird as a dazzling white cockatoo perched on the back of her chair, belting out all sorts of flagrant opinions, repeating itself like a Greek chorus: “You blame yourself, you blame yourself, you blame yourself.”

Not long ago—I don’t know what possessed me to do it—I’d told Hugh about these make-believe sessions with Dr. Ilg, even about the bird, and he’d smiled. “Maybe you should just see the bird,” he said. “Your Dr. Ilg sounds like an idiot.”

Now, across the room, Hugh was listening to the person on the phone, muttering, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” His face had clamped down into what Dee called “the Big Frown,” that pinched expression of grave and intense listening in which you could almost see the various pistons in his brain—Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney, Winnicott—bobbing up and down.

Wind lapped over the roof, and I heard the house begin to sing—as it routinely did—with an operatic voice that was very Beverly “Shrill,” as we liked to say. There were also doors that refused to close, ancient toilets that would suddenly decline to flush (“The toilets have gone anal-retentive again!” Dee would shout), and I had to keep constant vigilance to prevent Hugh from exterminating the flying squirrels that lived in the fireplace in his study. If we ever got a divorce, he loved to joke, it would be about squirrels.

But I loved all of this; I truly did. It was only the basement floods and the winter drafts that I hated. And now, with Dee in her first year at Vanderbilt, the emptiness—I hated that.

Hugh was hunched on his side of the bed, his elbows balanced on his knees and the top two knobs of his spine visible through his pajamas. He said, “You realize this is a serious situation, don’t you? She needs to see someone—I mean, an actual psychiatrist.”

I felt sure then it was a resident at the hospital, though it did seem Hugh was talking down to him, and that was not like Hugh.

Through the window the neighborhood looked drowned, as if the houses—some as big as arks—might lift off their foundations and float down the street. I hated the thought of slogging out into this mess, but of course I would. I would drive to Sacred Heart of Mary over on Peachtree and get my forehead swiped with ashes. When Dee was small, she’d mistakenly called the church the “ Scared Heart of Mary.” The two of us still referred to it that way sometimes, and it occurred to me now how apt the name really was. I mean, if Mary was still around, like so many people thought, including my insatiably Catholic mother, maybe her heart was scared. Maybe it was because she was on such a high and impossible pedestal—Consummate Mother, Good Wife, All-Around Paragon of Perfect Womanhood. She was probably up there peering over the side, wishing for a ladder, a parachute, something to get her down from there.

I hadn’t missed going to church on Ash Wednesday since my father had died—not once. Not even when Dee was a baby and I had to take her with me, stuffing her into a thick papoose of blankets, armored with pacifiers and bottles of pumped breast milk. I wondered why I’d kept subjecting myself to it—year after year at the Scared Heart of Mary. The priest with his dreary incantation: “Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return.” The blotch of ash on my forehead.

I only knew I had carried my father this way my whole life.

Hugh was standing now. He said, “Do you want me to tell her?” He looked at me, and I felt the gathering of dread. I imagined a bright wave of water coming down the street, rounding the corner where old Mrs. Vandiver had erected a gazebo too close to her driveway; the wave, not mountainous like a tsunami but a shimmering hillside sweeping toward me, carrying off the ridiculous gazebo, mailboxes, doghouses, utility poles, azalea bushes. A clean, ruinous sweep.

“It’s for you,” Hugh said. I didn’t move at first, and he called my name. “Jessie. The call—it’s for you.”

He held the receiver out to me, sitting there with his thick hair sticking up on the back of his head like a child’s, looking grave and uneasy, and the window copious with water, a trillion pewter droplets coming down on the roof.

"Book clubs, start your engines. Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, has sold 3 million copies since 2002.…Those are big shoes to fill, but Kidd acquits herself admirably with The Mermaid Chair….Both novels drip with vivid images of hot Southern afternoons, droning insects, swooping birds and oases in which nature is the fabric of life. It is a tapestry strengthened by bonds between women that bridge pain and loss. Most important, both have passages of beautiful writing… Kidd wrote two well-received memoirs before turning to fiction. But perhaps the answer ultimately given by The Mermaid Chair is that a storyteller also can change course and come of age in the middle of her life."—USA Today

"Her writing is so smart and sharp, she gives new life to old midlife crises, and she draws connections from the feminine to the divine to the erotic that a lesser writer wouldn't see, and might not have the guts to follow."—Time

"(A) rewarding second novel by the author of the bestselling Secret Life of Bees. Writing from the perspective of conflicted, discontented Jessie, Kidd achieves a bold intensity and complexity that wasn't possible in The Secret Life of Bees, narrated by teenage Lily. Jessie's efforts to cope with marital stagnation; Whit's crisisof faith; and Nelle's tormented reckoning with the past will resonate with many readers. This emotionally rich novel, full of sultry, magical descriptions of life in the South, is sure to be another hit for Kidd." —Publisher's Weekly, starred review

"Compelling reading.... The writing is soulful in its probing of the human heart and family secrets."—The San Francisco Chronicle

"Secrets are told. Mysteries are revealed. In one rich and satisfying gush…, Jessie reevaluates just about every aspect of her life: her husband, her lover, her mother, her artwork, the death of her father decades ago, and most of all herself... Rewarding."—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"If [The Secret Life of] Bees was a girl’s coming-of-age novel, [The Mermaid] Chair is a woman’s coming-of-middle-age novel….The prose thrilled me. Kidd can really turn a phrase and her descriptions of nature’s archetypal elements are magnificent."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A woman at life's crossroads, a parent’s tragic death and a strong, if eccentric circle of women. Stir in a forbidden love, and the pages all but turn themselves."—Parade

"Kidd grabs you from the first sentence of The Mermaid’s Chair. It is a satisfying tale that balances Southern gothic…[with] wish-fulfillment romance and a down-to-earth dissection of family problems. Sue Monk Kidd is a high-end practitioner of Ya-Ya-ism, with a lucid prose style and a fine sense of story. ... A good read."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Richly rewarding."—Chicago Tribune

"Kidd's second offering is just as gracefully written as her first and possesses an equally compelling story. It should appeal to the many readers who made her first novel a hit with book clubs."—Booklist

"Fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, will be equally enamored with her beguiling sophomore effort....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."—Book Page

"It’s hard to put this book down for little things like sleeping and eating."—Elle

"A well-told tale about marriage, mystery – and mermaids....Kidd writes at a deeper emotional level than she did in the fabulously popular Bees. Her characters are more tormented, more complex, in their processes of coming unwound and then healing….Yet it is also a quite powerful feminist statement, and can be savored strictly on the basis of Kidd’s beautiful use of language....The Mermaid Chair is a multidimensional pleasure."—Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"Kidd’s greatest strength as a writer is her sensuous, evocative prose. Egret Island is alive with its scent of salted air, old crab pots, bulling gumbo. The novel is also full, dense with symbolism, from the recurrent motif of the mermaid, diving deep and surfacing, to images of baptism, birds, rebirth. And Kidd continues to emphasize her central insights into the power of secrets to fester, the healing force of honesty and the significance of communities of independent but interwoven women, open to reconfigured rituals of grace….Kidd suggests that to merge body and soul just might enlarge a sense of what it is to be religious and to be married."—Pittsburgh Post Gazette

"[Kidd’s] imagination, originality and command of language never cease. She is simply a profound storyteller."—The Denver Post

"Kidd draws on her extensive knowledge of theology and mythology in this insightful book about the passions and desires of body and soul. Kidd. . . slowly and carefully unveils her story about the meaning of love, the necessity of risk, and the power of forgiveness."—Orlando Sentinel

"The steady pulse of Kidd's writing pushes this narrative from heart-throbber to soul-searcher."—Boston Herald

"Kidd’s sparkling imagery in The Mermaid Chair surpasses her efforts in [The Secret Life of] Bees and helps morph a simple story into something approaching myth....What keeps Kidd…flying high is her abiding sense of humor (her characters are really “characters”), an earthbound understanding of the ebb and flow of life, and her studious attention to the great metaphors of life."—Santa Cruz Sentinel

"This lush follow-up finds Kidd asking even bigger questions with the story of a woman whose life and marriage have grown increasingly stale."—Breathe

"[An] illuminating investigation of midlife malaise...The Mermaid Chair honors those who conjure up the courage to rediscover and recommit to their life passions." —The Seattle Times

"No question: Kidd can write."—The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Those who fell in love with Kidd’s first novel will find pleasure here."—The Oregonian

"It takes a rare and mysterious novel to speak to our souls in so many ways that we return to the book again and again for refreshment and renewal. Sue Monk Kidd created that kind of magic in The Secret Life of Bees, and her new novel promises to have the same effect….The Mermaid Chair will lure you into its warm embrace if you have experienced a deep sense of loss in your life that will not let you go. It will appeal to your yearning for a close encounter with grace. It will enchant that secret part of you that loves mermaids and saints. It will touch all those who struggle with the Sacred Feminine in all her incarnations."—Spirituality and Health Review

"As a stylist, Kidd is in firm command of her subject. She crafts the Low Country as still life, with impressionistic beauty, complete with Gullah denizens.... The Mermaid Chair provides more than the easy reach for casual readers, for underlying the woman-come-home plot, Kidd provides depth to her characters through thematic contradictions: spirituality versus the erotic, Christian versus mythological, new life through death, ultimately reconciling this writer's overall credo: There is no happiness or spiritual contentment without an appreciation for emptiness and the necessary experience of hell.... The Mermaid Chair exceeds Kidd's first novel both in scope and in depth. While it is darker in tone, deeper with dysfunction, Kidd reprises the old techniques. She textures her novel with complex characters, rich imagery and seamless symbolism.... The Mermaid Chair proves her versatility as a storyteller, her devotion to craft and a heart for the genuine character."—The Post & Courier


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