I loved The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. The characters were interesting and the plot was compelling. Partnered with good prose, you have a great book. I feel for Kidd because Bees was her debut novel. It would be hard to follow that up. You would worry about your next one living up to the first. It would be stressful. I’m sorry to say that I did not enjoy The Mermaid Chair nearly as much.
There were many facets of this book that I did enjoy. The religious elements of it were fascinating. I really liked the story behind the Mermaid Chair. It is dedicated to a saint and is kept by monks in a monastery on the home island of the protagonist, Jessie. The history of the chair is interesting, and the way the author ties the chair into Jessie’s story is engaging as well. It plays an important role in the history of the island and Jessie’s family.
Her father was killed when she was young in an accidental boat explosion. This is an important fact to be cognizant of throughout the book. As a middle-aged woman, estranged from her mother, she is brought back to the island because her mother, inexplicably, chops off one of her fingers. Yes, on purpose. This is also a compelling story line. What has caused her mother’s, seemingly sudden, mental instability. I was also wrapped up in the story of the chair and how it was tied to to the mother story line. As these stories unfold it becomes clear that there is a secret shared by many on the island, and truths come bobbing to the surface. These are the parts of the book I loved.
However, it does seem that one element overshadows all of these interesting and engaging elements of the story. Jessie, who is married to a thoughtful and successful man (he is a psychiatrist) who clearly loves her dearly, and with whom she has a daughter, is feeling restless. In typical midlife crisis form she comes home to the island to care for her mom and ends up having an affair with a monk. Okay, the monk part isn’t typical, but I’m sure it has happened before. Now, I will be the first to admit that this particular monk sounds like a decent choice as far as affairs go. Clearly he has a deep spiritual side. He is attractive and strong, and before he became a monk he was a successful lawyer (two great men in one lifetime, if only we were all so lucky). He reciprocates her feelings. There is no denying it. They are in love. (Please read previous two sentences with dripping sarcasm.)
Now, I’ve read many a book. Many stories are complicated in a thoroughly intriguing way by an affair. This one I found less than intriguing. Perhaps I just couldn’t connect to Jessie, but I think I did understand her well. And yes, given the time, we could probably break this down and analyze the role the affair played in helping Jessie to come to terms with her past on the island and truth about her marriage. Jessie, as many men and women claim to do, was given new vision and was able to see clearly the problems, and causes of these problems, in her marriage through the lens of this affair and the coming to light of secrets in her families past. Blah, blah, blah. It seemed unnecessary to the more compelling story lines of her mother’s mental stability and a secret from the past concerning the Mermaid Chair. If I was the type of reader who skipped over parts of a book that were uninteresting to me, I would have skipped over the parts with the affair and I would have finished the book in half the time and been throughly happy with the story.
Anyway, the affair was frivolous. It served only to underline Jessie’s selfishness (among other things), which is apparent in many other small ways throughout the book. I would love to discuss this further, but I would have to share the results of the affair, what exactly is haunting her mother, and break wide-open the secret that is hidden in this book. I don’t like to include spoilers, so I’ll stop. Suffice it to say there are some really interesting elements in this story, but for me it was ruined a bit by the affair that served little purpose to the more intriguing parts of the story.
Will I read another Kidd novel. Sure. I will read a few more by her before I would give up on her. She writes well, and is able to find interesting story arcs to pursue. Maybe I will like one of her other books as much as I enjoyed Bees….