The Mermaid Chair
Quill Award: Winner 2005
|listen to a Penguin Audio excerpt|
Sue Monk Kidd’s stunning debut, The Secret Life of Bees, has transformed her into a genuine literary star. Now, in her much-anticipated new novel, Kidd has woven a transcendent tale that will thrill her legion of fans and cement her reputation as one of the most remarkable writers at work today.
Sue Monk Kidd’s stunning debut, The Secret Life of Bees, has transformed her into a genuine literary star. Now, in her much-anticipated new novel, Kidd has woven a transcendent tale that will thrill her legion of fans and cement her reputation as one of the most remarkable writers at work today.CHAPTER ONE
Inside the abbey of a Benedictine monastery on tiny Egret Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, resides a beautiful and mysterious chair ornately carved with mermaids and dedicated to a saint who, legend claims, was a mermaid before her conversion.
Jessie Sullivan’s conventional life has been “molded to the smallest space possible.” So when she is called home to cope with her mother’s startling and enigmatic act of violence, Jessie finds herself relieved to be apart from her husband, Hugh. Jessie loves Hugh, but on Egret Island— amid the gorgeous marshlands and tidal creeks—she becomes drawn to Brother Thomas, a monk who is mere months from taking his final vows. What transpires will unlock the roots of her mother’s tormented past, but most of all, as Jessie grapples with the tension of desire and the struggle to deny it, she will find a freedom that feels overwhelmingly right.
What inspires the yearning for a soul mate? Few writers have explored, as Kidd does, the lush, unknown region of the feminine soul where the thin line between the spiritual and the erotic exists. The Mermaid Chair is a vividly imagined novel about the passions of the spirit and the ecstasies of the body; one that illuminates a woman’s self-awakening with the brilliance and power that only a writer of Kidd’s ability could conjure.
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 Hughís lower lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome.
Twenty years of this puffing. Iíd heard it when he wasnít 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 whoíd 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. ìYes, hello,î 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, theyíd said. Pieces of the boat had washed up weeks later, including a portion of the stern with Jes-Sea printed on it. Heíd named the boat for me, not for my brother, Mike, or even for my mother, whom heíd 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 itóthings Mike and Iíd discovered only because weíd sneaked the clipping from Motherís 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: ìPolice speculate that a spark from his pipe may have ignited a leak in the fuel line.î
Iíd given him the pipe for Fatherís Day. Up until then he had never even smoked.
I still could not think of him apart from the word ìsuspicious,î apart from this day, how heíd become ash the very day people everywhereóme, Mike, and my motherógot our foreheads smudged with it at church. Yet another irony in a whole black ensemble of them.
ìYes, of course I remember you,î I heard Hugh say into the phone, yanking me back to the call, the bleary morning. He said, ìYes, weíre all fine here. And how are things there?î
This didnít sound like a patient. And it wasnít our daughter, Dee, I was sure of that. I could tell by the formality in his voice. I wondered if it was one of Hughís 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.
Iíd nearly driven Hugh crazy to buy this big, impractical house, and even though weíd been in it seven years now, I still refused to criticize it. I loved the sixteen-foot ceilings and stained-glass transoms. And the turretóGod, 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 skylightóso remote and enchanting that Dee had dubbed it the ìRapunzel tower.î She was always teasing me about it. ìHey, Mom, when are you gonna let your hair down?î
That was Dee being playful, being Dee, but we both knew what she meantóthat Iíd become too stuffy and self-protected. Too conventional. This past Christmas, while she was home, Iíd posted a Gary Larson cartoon on the refrigerator with a magnet that proclaimed me worldís greatest mom. In it, two cows stood in their idyllic pasture. One announced to the other, ìI donít care what they say, Iím not content.î Iíd 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 heíd seen nothing suggestive in it. It was Dee whoíd stood before it an inordinate amount of time, then given me a funny look. She hadnít laughed at all.
To be honest, I had been restless. It had started back in the fallóthis 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 flooróthe 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. Oróand this was the worst of allóa TV show about some intrepid woman traveling alone in the blueness of Greece, and Iíd 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 livesóthough, really, I didnít want to do any of those particular things. I didnít 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 Deeís being away at college, the clichÈd empty nest and all that.
Last fall, after weíd gotten her settled at Vanderbilt, Hugh and Iíd rushed home so he could play in the Waverly Harris Cancer Classic, a tennis tournament heíd been worked up about all summer. Heíd gone out in the Georgia heat for three months and practiced twice a week with a fancy Prince graphite racket. Then Iíd 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 usóa thing sheíd 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 Deeóof course I didóbut I couldnít 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. Iíd refused on the grounds that she had a parrot in her office.
I knew that would drive him crazy. This wasnít the real reason, of courseóI have nothing against peopleís having parrots, except that they keep them in little cages. But I used it as a way of letting him know I wasnít taking the suggestion seriously. It was one of the rare times I didnít acquiesce to him.
ìSo sheís got a parrot, so what?î heíd said. ìYouíd like her.î Probably I would, but I couldnít quite bring myself to go that faróall that paddling around in the alphabet soup of oneís 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 padówhich 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: ìYou blame yourself, you blame yourself, you blame yourself.î
Not long agoóI donít know what possessed me to do itóIíd told Hugh about these make- believe sessions with Dr. Ilg, even about the bird, and heíd smiled. ìMaybe you should just see the bird,î he said. ìYour Dr. Ilg sounds like an idiot.î
Now, across the room, Hugh was listening to the person on the phone, muttering, ìUh-huh, uh-huh.î His face had clamped down into what Dee called ìthe Big Frown,î that pinched expression of grave and intense listening in which you could almost see the various pistons in his brainóFreud, Jung, Adler, Horney, Winnicottóbobbing up and down.
Wind lapped over the roof, and I heard the house begin to singóas it routinely didówith an operatic voice that was very Beverly ìShrill,î as we liked to say. There were also doors that refused to close, ancient toilets that would suddenly decline to flush (ìThe toilets have gone anal- retentive again!î 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 emptinessóI 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, ìYou realize this is a serious situation, donít you? She needs to see someoneóI mean, an actual psychiatrist.î
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 housesósome as big as arksómight 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, sheíd mistakenly called the church the ìScared Heart of Mary.î 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 pedestalóConsummate 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 hadnít missed going to church on Ash Wednesday since my father had diedónot 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 Iíd kept subjecting myself to itóyear after year at the Scared Heart of Mary. The priest with his dreary incantation: ìRemember you are dust, to dust you shall return.î 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, ìDo you want me to tell her?î 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.
ìItís for you,î Hugh said. I didnít move at first, and he called my name. ìJessie. The callóitís for you.î
He held the receiver out to me, sitting there with his thick hair sticking up on the back of his head like a childís, looking grave and uneasy, and the window copious with water, a trillion pewter droplets coming down on the roof.
“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.”
"(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 crisis of 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."
“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.”
“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
"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 Magazine (American Library Association)
"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 Magazine
“It’s hard to put this book down for little things like sleeping and eating.”
—Elle, “Elle’s Letters” Readers’ Prize 2005
“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.”
“The steady pulse of Kidd's writing pushes this narrative from heart-throbber to soul-searcher.”
“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.”
“[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.”
“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 (Charleston)
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