In the winter and spring of 1988, Jessie Sullivan is summoned to South Carolina for a family emergency. Her mother’s mental breakdown and self-injury require Jessie to return to Egret Island. The trip from Atlanta is a distraction from Jessie’s own empty-nest feelings brought on by her daughter’s college enrollment.
Seeing Egret Island brings back some painful memories for Jessie. Her father died in a boating accident when she was nine. The adult relationship with her mother was strained at best. Now Jessie must put those feelings aside in order to give her mother the care she requires.
The Mermaid Chair is an island treasure located in the monastery next-door to Jessie’s childhood home. Author Sue Monk Kidd weaves the story around the chair and it’s local lore. Even Jessie is swept up in its magic as she questions the direction of her life and the state of her marriage. Mutual attraction to one of the monks is the catalyst that sets the story on its path.
Though this is an interesting story, it’s difficult to support of sympathize with Jessie. With an empty nest, her mother’s psychiatric issues and the painful memories of her death, Jessie manages to push everything aside in order to lust after a monk. Eventually, Kidd deals with all of these issues, but not before Jessie comes off looking like a selfish woman with a mid-life crisis. A little more time at the beginning of the novel spent on Jessie’s relationship with her mother or the pain of losing her father would have made her amorous actions more justified. A more detailed exploration of the other characters, Kat and Hepzibah, as well as the island’s Gullah history would have enhanced the tale as well.
The picturesque coastal Carolina setting and practical ending tip the scales in favor of The Mermaid Chair. I’m more critical than most readers would be about the book. It is a good story by a good writer. It’s just easy for me to see how it could have been better.