Saturday, July 9, 2011

Belonging to Onself: The Mermaid Chair

The Mermaid Chair is the story of Jessie Dubois Sullivan, a 42-year-old woman who finds herself called back to her childhood home on Egret Island, South Caroline to deal with a crisis with her mother, Nelle. Despite wanting noting more to leave the island when she was younger and being somewhat estranged from her mother for the last several years, Jessie finds herself rushing back to her island home not only to care for her mother but also because she feels not only the need to leave but also relief at leaving her husband Hugh of 20 years.

It's not that Jessie doesn't love Hugh; she does, but she instinctively feels that she is missing something in her life. Their only child has left for college, so many might attribute Jessie's feelings to "empty nest syndrome", but her feelings seem to run deeper than that; she is restless and discontent with "this feeling of time passing, of being postponed, pent up". Jessie is no longer satisfied with her life as Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, and when she returns to Egret Island, she will meet Brother Thomas (Whit), a monk from the Benedictine monastery, that occupies a large portion of the small island near Nelle's home, and that meeting will change everything. Threaded through this return to Egret Island and the meeting of Whit, is Jessie facing the death of her father, who died on Ash Wednesday when she was nine.

The Mermaid Chair is both a love story and a story of a woman facing the mid-life of her marriage. But ultimately, it's a powerful exploration of committing to oneself, loving oneself, and belonging to oneself. If it's possible to have a second coming of age, The Mermaid Chair focuses on Jessie ultimately finding herself and her identity outside her role as wife and mother as well as outside her role or identity as her father's daughter, and identity that Jessi never seems to have truly established, despite leaving the island, marrying, and spending 20 years with her husband Hugh.

When I first began reading this book, my initial reaction was "oh, a story about a woman's mid-life crises", and that wasn't really a positive reaction. I was preparing myself for the typical plot-line of "woman is discontent with life, meets another man, falls in love, and must then deal with the consequences of her life and to her marriage". But, The Mermaid Chair is not that. As I read on, I found myself absorbed with the characters, especially Jessie and Whit; there was something about both Jessie and Whit that resonated with me, and beyond these two central characters, enjoying how Monk Kidd seemingly seamlessly weaved together the lines of Jessie's, her mother Nelle's, Whit's and many of the more minor character's stories.

I think Monk Kidd manages this effortless weaving because she effectively shifts narrators, presenting the story from both Jessie's point of view and Whit's for a large portion of the novel, but also shift's to Hugh as the narrator for a chapter or two at pivotal points in Jessie and Hugh's relationship. In the end, I found myself wanting more of the characters, especially Whit as well as Kat and her daughter Benne and Hepzibah (two of Nelle's lifelong friends) and was sorry to see the novel come to an end.

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