The Mermaid’s Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

Having read The Secret Life of the Bees, Kidd’s debut novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I looked forward to The Mermaid’s Chair, her second novel. A married woman falling in love with a monk was certainly an interesting scenario. But half-way through the novel, which is filled with rich metaphors and symbols, I began to have mixed feelings, especially when Jessie, the protagonist and Whit or Brother Thomas, the monk, begin to consummate their attraction for each other. Perhaps I was expecting Jessie to be able to resist and not give in to the temptation of adultery risking hurting her marriage, her loving and dedicated husband, Hugh, as well Dee, their daughter. The fact that Whit who had consecrated himself to the Lord and made his vow of celibacy (albeit temporary) also seemed to have been disregarded if not trivialized by both parties. The fact that both Jessie and Whit “fell” for each other immediately based primarily on physical attraction without even getting to know each other first also seemed shallow and unrealistic.
Yet as I read the second half of the novel, I began to appreciate how Kidd tried to reveal the human frailty in each of us, the vulnerability and the desire for love, intimacy and understanding. Most of all, the innate need to be free to be oneself and grow to one’s full potential, without any inhibitions set by others and society. Jessie, who was in her early 40s was no doubt having a mid-life crisis. Although her marriage was glued with love, she still felt stifled and somewhat stunted. It was time for her to break out of the mould she and others had set. Unfortunately this comes with a price.
As Jessie unravels the dormant areas of herself, and brings them to birth, the novel can be paralleled with Secret Life of the Bees as a “coming of age” tale. Jessie also discovers certain truths about the past, her parents, and her father’s death, and amidst the pain and torment she undergoes, she is somewhat healed by the truth, and is set free from the wounds of the past. The reconciliation between Jessie and Hugh is somewhat clumsily written yet the beauty of the forgiveness and love from Hugh is brought forth in the closing pages, reminding me of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps an alternative title for this novel could have been The Prodigal Wife if not Hosea’s Wife. Life is not perfect and each person is never perfect. Yet when there is love, the forgiveness and understanding which flows from love redeem our human imperfections, sinfulness and weaknesses.

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