I was excited to begin this book because I loved her previous novel, The Secret Lives of Bees so much. In a word, I am disappointed with this book. This book was sluggish. There were sections that I had force myself to sit down and read. There are numerous paragraphs of descriptions of food, flora, and fauna that I used speed reading to get my way through. For a while I wasn’t sure what was lacking in The Mermaid Chair. I thought perhaps it was because of my state of mind or other changes in my life. By the end, I know that it was a lack of substance and a forced narrative that made the experience of reading this book almost intolerable. Ask Danny. I even stuck my tongue out at the book last night.
This book begins with Jessie basically having a mid-life crisis. She’s married to a psychiatrist and her only daughter has moved away to college. She herself is an artist, but it has become more of a hobby and less of a vocation over the years. She doesn’t know who she is outside of her relationships, even going back to her late father. When her crazy, Roman Catholic fanatic mother chops off her right index finger, Jessie has her opportunity to escape her life, even if that means that she’ll have to come face to face with the mother she’s distanced herself from because of the lunatic Nelle evolved into after her husband’s death 33 years prior.
Her mother lives on an island off of the South Carolina coast near Charleston. Also located on this island is a Benedictine monastery whose patron saint is St. Senara, a mermaid who became human and then converted to Catholicism. One of the key tourist attractions is the Mermaid Chair that is located in the chapel. This Mermaid Chair was thought to have spiritual powers. Nelle was burying her finger next to St. Senara’s statue when Jessie arrives. While helping her dig the finger’s grave, Jessie meets Brother Thomas. From here, she is consumed with this man.
The remainder of the novel follows Jessie as she investigates why her mother mutilated herself, begins a formal separation from her husband, Hugh, explores a new relationship with Brother Thomas, and finds herself. She spends much more time and energy on the men in her life and herself than she does on her mother. The entire thing with her mother felt like a cheap narrative device. The resolution of that storyline was anticlimactic to me. It only served to make me dread finishing the novel even more.
The fact that Jessie pursues an affair with a monk did not help to endear me to either character. It’s not that I can’t let myself go and get lost in the romance of two individuals risking and giving up all that is important to them to be together. People make and break vows every day. I guess in light of the current state of the priesthood and my own experiences with trusted clergymen, I don’t find this spectacular in anyway. Perhaps older or more traditional Catholic readers would find this aspect of the storyline more interesting or thought provoking. Maybe this is why over the course of the book the reader discovers that it takes place in the late 1980s. I just believe that Whit’s (Brother Thomas) vows to the Catholic Church are no more or no less holy than Jessie’s marriage vows to Hugh. Certainly, clergy make a vow to Christ as well. According to Catholic theology, so do married couples. That makes those vows of equal import to me.
In the end, issues of self, marriage, and faith all work out exactly as I had anticipated from the beginning. I can’t help but think that it was a waste of my time to read it. Still, you can’t always read great books. Reading the duds helps you to appreciate those that you enjoy. It also helps you define the qualities of literature and other writings that make this life come alive in your imagination. Through the process or reading you become a better reader and learn things about yourself that you may not otherwise have known. That might not have all of the sex and spectacle the author added to Jessie’s journey into self, but it’s honest.
To buy this novel, click here.