The Mermaid Chair

May 29, 2006

Sue Monk Kidd has become a publishing and cultural phenomenon, and her newest book, The Mermaid Chair, is solidly on the best-seller lists.

On the evening of March 29, Sue Monk Kidd spoke to a sold-out house in Homewood, Alabama. Ms Kidd was given the key to the city of Homewood at the end of her presentation. There were two men in the audience of approximately 600.

Sue Monk Kidd has become a publishing and cultural phenomenon, and her newest book, The Mermaid Chair, is solidly on the best-seller lists.

The road to this novel has had some interesting turns in it, however. Kidd wrote literally hundreds of pieces for Watchtower, a conventional Christian publication, and several volumes of inspirational writing. But, as Kidd writes in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, she underwent considerable disillusionment with her church.

She decided that the church was patriarchal and condescending to women, blamed Eve for bringing sin into the world, kept women out of any real power, and expected them to be obedient. In Dissident Daughter she writes of her journey from obedient daughter to believer in the feminine divine and the Goddess. This autobiographical volume needs to be read to its conclusion, because Kidd modulates and stabilizes her position by the end of it.

In The Secret Life of Bees, a white girl and her friend, an older black woman, having been wounded by men, find sanctuary with a group of women in rural South Carolina where they have established a kind of oasis of harmony and safety.

The Mermaid Chair, like The Secret Life of Bees, is a feminist novel, but could be read by anyone. It is smoothly written, with quirky characters and a plot that moves right along.

Jessie Sullivan, 42, married to Hugh and mother of Dee, returns to her home place, Egret Island, off the coast of South Carolina, because her mother has commenced cutting off her fingers with a kitchen knife. Clearly, something is wrong with mom, and Jessie and the reader want to know what it is.

All is not well with Jessie either. She is restless, unhappy with her husband, who is an extraordinarily nice man, and of course with her church. Mermaid's Chair is a loosely but visibly autobiographical novel.

After arriving at Egret Island, Jessie renews her deep friendship with Kat, Benne, and Hepzipah, who has magic powers.

Kidd believes in a variety of somewhat transcendental possibilities to be found in the everyday. In her novels, there are answers to be found in dreams, if they are properly understood.

It is possible, indeed desirable, to create sacred objects-not just to collect saints' fingerbones and fragments of the true cross, but to make new sacred objects, such as a decorated turtle skull and the mermaid chair itself. And we are free to invent new rituals. In Mermaid, the ritual is the all-girls, all-night picnic by the sea. After all, every sacred object was once new, and every ritual was once performed for the first time, so why not?

Jessie is not on the island very long, however, when she develops a new behavior or ritual. She falls dead in love, sexually, passionately, with a monk who has not yet taken his final vows. (One should remember that Jessie has taken hers.) As the novel progresses, we will learn the answers to several real mysteries. Why is mother cutting off her fingers? How exactly did Jessie's father die, and was it really in any way Jessie's fault? Will Jessie divorce her husband and marry Brother Thomas?

I had spoken to Ms. Kidd on the afternoon of her talk in Homewood and asked her if she expected any men to read her books. Although most readers of her novels are women, she said she was pleasantly surprised to hear from men who had read Dance of the Dissident Daughter and actually passed it along to their wives.