5 reviews

The Mermaid Chair: A Novel
by Sue Monk Kidd

Published: 2005-04-05
Hardcover : 335 pages
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49 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 3 of 5 members
Sue Monk Kidd’s stunning debut, The Secret Life of Bees, has transformed her into a genuine literary star. Now, in her much-anticipated new novel, Kidd has woven a transcendent tale that will thrill her legion of fans and cement her reputation as one of the most remarkable writers at ...
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Sue Monk Kidd’s stunning debut, The Secret Life of Bees, has transformed her into a genuine literary star. Now, in her much-anticipated new novel, Kidd has woven a transcendent tale that will thrill her legion of fans and cement her reputation as one of the most remarkable writers at work today.

Inside the abbey of a Benedictine monastery on tiny 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.

Jessie Sullivan’s conventional life has been 'molded to the smallest space possible.' So when she is called home to cope with her mother’s startling and enigmatic act of violence, Jessie finds herself relieved to be apart from her husband, Hugh. Jessie loves Hugh, but on Egret Island— amid the gorgeous marshlands and tidal creeks—she becomes drawn to Brother Thomas, a monk who is mere months from taking his final vows. What transpires will unlock the roots of her mother’s tormented past, but most of all, as Jessie grapples with the tension of desire and the struggle to deny it, she will find a freedom that feels overwhelmingly right.

What inspires the yearning for a soul mate? Few writers have explored, as Kidd does, the lush, unknown region of the feminine soul where the thin line between the spiritual and the erotic exists. The Mermaid Chair is a vividly imagined novel about the passions of the spirit and the ecstasies of the body; one that illuminates a woman’s self-awakening with the brilliance and power that only a writer of Kidd’s ability could conjure.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


February 17, 1988, I opened my eyes and heard a procession of sounds: first the phone going off on the opposite side of the bed, rousing us at 5:04 a.m. to what could only be a calamity, then rain pummeling the roof of our old Victorian house, sluicing its sneaky way to the basement, and finally small puffs of air coming from Hugh’s lower lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Questions from the Publisher's Reading Guide:

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 Fielding'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 dying 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 to 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?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Discussion questions
by Deemann11 (see profile) 07/21/14
Avoid the discussion questions at the end of the book and find some others online, unless you want to be really studious!!!

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Great discussion."by Gaylynn M. (see profile) 06/15/16

Nice discussion on this story. Very different from her other novel.

  "The Mermaid Chair: A Novel"by Dianne M. (see profile) 07/21/14

The author, Sue Monk Kidd, is a good writer. Her stories are easy to follow. This book made "Google" to learn more about the plant "dead finger" and information on Mermaid's chairs.

  "Tried too hard to combine too many elements"by Shannon J. (see profile) 10/01/13

I recommend this book for a club because it was fun to talk about all that could have been better. There were too many typical elements: magical negro, mother/daughter conflict, marriage conflict (for... (read more)

  "Good book....."by Jessica G. (see profile) 06/25/12

After reading the reviews on this book..i was sure i was going to hate it and not be able to finish...but i was completely surprised to find i actually enjoyed it. Yes the book is NOTHING like "The secret... (read more)

  "Blah......"by Regina C. (see profile) 02/02/10

Story is contrived and uninteresting. It started ok - everyone wants to escape their life at some point, but it just went downhill from there.

  "The Mermaid Chair"by Allison P. (see profile) 07/29/09

I was disappointed after reading Secret Life of Bees. Why does a mid-life crisis story always have to involve and affair? Why couldn't she come through her metamophosis through her artwork? I think... (read more)

  "The Mermaid Chair"by Peggy Y. (see profile) 06/03/09

This book held my interest from start to finish. I would recommend it to any reader in that it would hold their interest until the end. Mystery and drama drive the theme throughout.

  "good book/easy read"by kathy k. (see profile) 03/05/09

There were mixed reviews at our meeting. Most did not like "Mermaid" as much as "Bees". A couple of us did and even enjoyed it more because of the ease in which we could identify with Jesse. I enjoyed... (read more)

  "We all agreed that we liked the book, but it wasn't one of our best selections."by Jan S. (see profile) 03/05/09

  "Jessie returns to childhood island home when mom cuts off her finger, has an affair with a monk and comes to terms with her changing role in her marriage and family."by Angela L. (see profile) 07/18/08

Pretty good read, although not as good as Secret Life of Bees, which we had just read and discussed. It did provoke a lively discussion of the state of our own marriages!

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