The Mermaid Chair

By Sue Monk Kidd
Publisher:Penguin Group (USA) Inc., (3/7/2006)

Average Rating:
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4.25 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

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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.
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Sue Monk Kidd wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which I have, if you like her writing you will like this one too. This story is more intense and mature than "Bees", a good story of Jessie Sullivan and her journey to self.


"The Mermaid Chair"
By Sue Monk Kidd

Average Rating:
Very Unleashable
4.25 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
1. How does a woman like Jessie become "molded to the smallest space possible"? What signs might appear in her life? What did Jessie mean when she said part of the problem was her chronic inability to astonish herself? 

2. Jessie comes to believe that an essential problem in her marriage is not that she and Hugh have grown apart, but that they have grown "too much together." What do you think she means by that? How important is it for Jessie to find her "solitude of being"? How does a woman balance apartness and togetherness in a relationship? 

3. How would you describe Nelle before and after her husband's death? What is your interpretation of the mysterious factors that led her to cut off her finger? What do her fingers symbolize? How does the myth of Sedna—the Inuit mermaid whose severed fingers became the first sea creatures—shed light on Nelle's state of mind? 

4. Jessie feels that she has found a soul mate in Whit. Do you find this word inviting or repellent? When we speak of looking for a soul mate, what do we mean? Is there really such a thing? 

5. Why do you think Whit came to the monastery? Would you describe him as having a crisis of faith? In what ways does he vacillate between falling into life and transcending it? What do you think of his decision at the end about whether to leave or to stay? 

6. Islands are often places of personal trial and distillation of self––such as Shakespeare's The Tempest or Fielding's Lord of the Flies. What are the emotional islands upon which each character is stranded? What is the significance of the Egret Island setting? How does each character finally escape the island of his or her making? What does the trial on the enchanted island reveal about each character? 

7. St. Senara only becomes a saint once an abbot hides her fish tail and prohibits her from returning to the sea. On one hand, she has lost her wild nature and freedom to swim away, but on the other hand, she has gained sainthood among the humans she has grown to love. What is the significance of this tale in Jessie's life? When she leaves her husband to return to Egret Island, is she the wild mermaid or the stranded saint? How does the duality of the mermaid and the saint play out in women's lives? Can a woman contain both? Why do you think mystics and poets have drawn comparisons between sensual delight and godly delight? 

8. The mermaid chair is a central image in the novel. What does it symbolize? What role does it play in the novel? In Jessie's life? In her father's? How does it become a place of dying and rebirth for both of them, literally and figuratively? 

9. How would you describe Jessie's relationship with her father? How did having an absent father affect her? How did it affect her relationship to Hugh? What do you think Kidd was suggesting by the image of the whirley girl? 

10. Jessie breaks away from creating her tiny art boxes and begins to paint, finding her true gift. Why is she unable to take up her authentic creative life before this? What role do her paintings play in her metamorphosis? How does Jessie's series of paintings of diving women reflect her own experience? What role does the motif of diving play in the novel? 

11. The novel celebrates the hallowed bonds of women and suggests how a true community of women can become a maternal circle that nurtures a woman toward self-realization and helps her to give birth to a new life. How do Kat, Hepzibah, and even Benne play a role in Jessie's transformation? What has been the importance of female communities in your own life? 

12. In perhaps the most moving and cathartic moment in the novel, Jessie goes to Bone Yard beach and speaks vows of commitment to herself—"'Jessie. I take you, Jessie . . . for better or worse . . . to love and to cherish.'" What does it mean to make a "marriage" to your self? Paradoxically, Jessie discovered that belonging to herself allowed her to belong more truly to Hugh. Does an inviolate commitment to oneself enhance one's commitment to a relationship? 

13. In your mind, was Jessie's father's death a sin? Jessie isn't sure if choosing to end one's life in order to spare oneself and one's family extreme suffering was horning in on God's territory and usurping "the terrifying power to say when," or whether it was usurping God's deep heart by laying down one's life as a sacrifice. What do you think? 

14. The Mermaid Chair suggests that a love affair may be a common response to a marriage that has lost its way, but that in the end it is not a solution. In what way do you think the novel is a cautionary tale? Why do you think Jessie is unable to heed the warnings from Kat and Hepzibah? How could Jessie have found awakening without betraying her marriage? 

15. Upon her return home, Jessie says, "There would be no grand absolution, only forgiveness meted out in these precious sips. It would well up from Hugh's heart in spoonfuls and he would feed it to me. And it would be enough." Why does Jessie return to Hugh? Why is Hugh able to accept her back into his life? How has their relationship changed since she left for Egret Island? How has Jessie changed? 

Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
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Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair is the soulful tale of Jessie Sullivan, a middle-aged woman whose stifled dreams and desires take shape during an extended stay on Egret Island, where she is caring for her troubled mother, Nelle. Like Kidd's stunning debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, her highly anticipated follow up evokes the same magical sense of whimsy and poignancy.

While Kidd places an obvious importance on the role of mysticism and legend in this tale, including the mysterious mermaid's chair at the center of the island's history, the relationships between characters is what gives this novel its true weight. Once she returns to her childhood home, Jessie is forced to confront not only her relationship with her estranged mother, but her other emotional ties as well. After decades of marriage to Hugh, her practical yet conventional husband, Jessie starts to question whether she is craving an independence she never had the chance to experience. After she meets Brother Thomas, a handsome monk who has yet to take his final vows, Jessie is forced to decide whether passion can coexist with comfort, or if the two are mutually exclusive. As her soul begins to reawaken, Jessie must also confront the circumstances of her father's death, a tragedy that continues to haunt Jessie and Nelle over thirty years later.

By boldly tackling such major themes as love, betrayal, grief, and forgiveness, The Mermaid Chair forces readers to question whether moral issues can always be interpreted in black or white. It is this ability to so gracefully present multiple sides of a story that reinforces Kidd's reputation as a well-respected modern literary voice. --Gisele Toueg --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Publishers Weekly
Every aspect of this audiobook, from the enchanting music that marks the story's dramatic moments to the narrator's intimate delivery, draws listeners into Kidd's mystical world. Set on Egret Island, a fictional barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, the novel focuses on 42-year-old Jessie, a Southern housewife who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after learning that her mother, who's still distraught over her husband's death 33 years earlier, has cut off her own finger. Foss speaks with grace and tenderness, deftly capturing the myriad characters who enter Jessie's life, including her love interest, an introspective attorney turned monk who's about to take his finals vows. Perhaps the book's most important character, however, is the land itself, and Foss wisely gives as much weight to Kidd's detailed depictions of the island's lush flora and fauna as to the characters themselves, never rushing through the descriptions and always reading these passages with an appropriate note of reverence. 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition. 

From Bookmarks Magazine
Critics generally agree that despite some thematic similarities, The Mermaid Chair is a sophomoric slump compared to Kidd’s bestselling debut novel,The Secret Life of Bees (2002). Kidd, who’s also authored several inspirational books, draws on her theological background to depict her characters’ awakening states. Despite complimenting some beautiful passages describing the Southern landscape, critics quickly ridiculed the novel’s enlightened romance—for Jessie, one of "transgression and betrayal," but "also mystery and what felt like holiness." The novel’s glacial pace and awkward mermaid symbolism only detracted from what could have been a poignant love story. If you’re a fan, however, perhaps there is enough pain and sacrifice to keep you reading.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Booklist
Kidd's debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2000), is a bona fide publishing success story: it was on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for 81 weeks. Her follow-up, while quite different in plot, shares some themes with its predecessor. Forty-three-year old Jessie Sullivan is pulled out of her staid life in Atlanta with her husband and daughter, back to her childhood home on Egret Island after her mother, Nelle, cuts off one of her own fingers. Jessie has been uneasy with the island since her beloved father died when she was nine in a boating accident, a tragedy Jessie has always felt partially responsible for. At the behest of her mother's best friend, Jessie journeys back to the island to try to reconnect with the mother she's never been close to. Jessie wants to know what drove her obviously disturbed mother to sever her finger, and she thinks Father Dominic, one of the Benedictine monks who resides in a nearby monastery, might know more about her mother's state of mind. But it is another monk who claims Jessie's attention--handsome Brother Thomas, who ignites in Jessie a passion so intense it overwhelms her, leading her to question her marriage and rediscover her artistic drive. 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. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

A richly complex exploration of a woman's search for her own identity....A well-told tale. -- The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Richly rewarding. -- Chicago Tribune

What saves The Mermaid Chair from the curse of the second-novel blues is its warmhearted, resilient heroine. -- The Baltimore Sun --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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 pajam... --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

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Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, has sold more than 3,500,000 copies. She is also the author of several acclaimed memoirs and the recipient of numerous awards, including the Poets & Writers award. 

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