Book Review and Bonus Book Club Questions – The Mermaid Chair
As many of you know, I run the book club at our local library. We just finished reading The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. We had quite the discussion about this book. The author is new to all of us and at the end of our review, you will find questions to ask at your own book club.
About The Author
Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, spent more than one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, has sold nearly six million copies, and was chosen as the 2004 BookSense Paperback book of the Year and Good Morning America’s “Read This!” Book Club pick. It was adapted into an award-winning movie in 2008.
Her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, won the 2005 Quil Book Award for Best General Fiction and was adapted into a television movie. Her novels have been published in more than thirty countries. She is also the author of several acclaimed memoirs and the recipient of many awards, including a Poets & Writers Award. She lives near Charleston, South Carolina.
The Synopsis of The Mermaid Chair
Inside the church of a Benedictine monastery on Egret Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, resides a beautiful and mysterious chair ornately carved with mermaids and dedicated to a saint who, legend claims, was a mermaid before her conversion.
When Jessie Sullivan is summoned home to the island to cope with her eccentric mother’s seemingly inexplicable behavior, she is living a conventional life with her husband, Hugh, a life “molded tot he smallest space possible.” Jessie loves Hugh, but once on the island, she finds herself drawn to Brother Thomas, a monk about to take his final vows.
Amid a rich community of unforgettable island women and the exotic beauty of marshlands, tidal creeks, and majestic egrets, Jessie grapples with the tension of desire and the struggle to deny it, with a freedom that feels overwhelmingly right and the immutable force of home and marriage.
Is the power of the mermaid chair only a myth? Or will it alter the course of Jessie’s life? What happens will unlock the roots of her mother’s tormented past, but most of all, it will allow Jessie to come to discover selfhood and a place of belongings as she explores the thin line between the spiritual and the erotic.
Jessie the main character, seems to be going through a mid-life crisis and begins to question her marriage to Huge after twenty years. At the same time her mother Nellie is having mental-health issues. Jessie travels alone to tend to her mother’s needs who has lived alone since the death of Jessie father when Jessie was only six and had always thought it was her fault.
While visiting her mother, Jessie has an affair with a monk called Witt and is ready to leave her husband. The speed at which she came to this decision, seemed unrealistic and was when our dislike for her began. (I believe it was after their first encounter).
The story then unfolds many truths, some of which are shocking. Surprisingly we all had different opinions about the book. One member absolutely loved everything about the book, from the author’s style of writing, the main character Jessie, whom she related to and in some way, Jessie reminded her of herself.
A couple of us didn’t like Jessie or the way she treated her husband and left us feeling only anger toward her. We asked ourselves, Why didn’t she talk to her husband about how she was feeling? A big bombshell was dropped in the story about her father’s death that none of us were expecting and also created more feeling of anger with some of the other characters.
We all felt sorry for Jessie’s husband, Huge because of the way he was treated by Jessie. (Well I know I did.) Huge seemed like a really nice guy but toward the end of the book, he disappointed a majority of us.
Overall it was a good story with some unexpected twists. Parts of it dragged on and became too descriptive for some of us, to the point where we had to backtrack because we had forgotten what the author was describing. This happened numerous times throughout the book and prevented us from keeping engaged with the story.
Our Overall Rating
COVER DESIGN – 5 STARS – It’s an intriguing eye-catching cover that entices you to pick up the book and read more.
CHARACTERIZATION – 3 STARS – We disliked the main character and was disappointed with Huge. Some of their actions seemed unrealistic and rushed.
STORY & PLOT 4 STARS – The storyline was good. At times it dragged on and wasn’t engaging.
OVERALL RATING – 4 STARS – Overall we gave this book 4 stars
Questions to ask at your book club
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 Golding’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 death 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 with 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?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)
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