The Mermaid Chair: A Novel

by Sue Monk Kidd

Hardcover, 2005

Call number




Viking (2005), Edition: First Edition, 335 pages


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.… (more)

Media reviews

Forty-three-year old Jessie Sullivan is pulled out of her staid life in Atlanta with her husband and daughter, back to her childhood home on Egret Island after her mother, Nelle, cuts off one of her own fingers. Jessie has been uneasy with the island since her beloved father died when she was nine
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in a boating accident, a tragedy Jessie has always felt partially responsible for. At the behest of her mother's best friend, Jessie journeys back to the island to try to reconnect with the mother she's never been close to. Jessie wants to know what drove her obviously disturbed mother to sever her finger, and she thinks Father Dominic, one of the Benedictine monks who resides in a nearby monastery, might know more about her mother's state of mind. But it is another monk who claims Jessie's attention--handsome Brother Thomas, who ignites in Jessie a passion so intense it overwhelms her, leading her to question her marriage and rediscover her artistic drive.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Clueless
The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd (book review)

What a disappointing book after ‘The Secret Life of Bees’. I found the opening theme of dismemberment to be tired very tired. It’s been done before in ‘I know this much is true’ and ‘Where the heart is.’

If Jesse found Brother Thomas so
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attractive because of:

“My falling in love with him had everything to do with his monkness, his loyalty to what lay deep within him, the self-containment of his solitude, that desire to be transformed.”

Huh? If he was so devoted to god, what the heck was he doing fooling around with a married woman?

There were some nice phrases though. I chuckled at this one is about a shrine fashioned from an upturned bathtub sunk half into the earth:

“The first time I saw the tub, I told Mother that all those tears Mary’s statues reportedly cried were because of the extreme tackiness of her devotees.”

It was pretty clear that Brother Thomas had come to the monastery to flee the pains of everyday life not to run into the open arms of god.

“I have come here not to find answers,” he’d written in his notebook that first year, “but to find a way to live in a world without any.”

Okay that’s cool. But you don’t have to run away and join a monastery for that, a few minutes of Buddhist meditation could get you the same.

“Sometimes just being honest is just being stupid.”

Jesse blamed her husband for making her feel stale. I think that’s lame. She had an obligation to herself to nurture her own uniqueness. We all do.

This whole idea that infatuation can somehow compete with years of marriage really irked me. Maybe it’s human nature to run away from problems but to build a good marriage you stay and work though the hard times. This builds a relationship that I doubt any fleeting lust could breach.

And no, I didn’t like ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ either.
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LibraryThing member thatotter
I enjoyed [book: The Secret Life of Bees] by the same author, but this was just awful. I don't even want to go into how unrealistic and juvenile it was.
LibraryThing member Brandie
Eh, okay book. I know a lot of people thought it was really good. I thought it was so-so.
LibraryThing member mighteq
I enjoyed the author's other book, The Secret Life of Bees, much better. Athough this book is still a great read.
LibraryThing member cataylor
Set on the SC coast, Jessie's middle age crisis uncovers the truth about her father's death and helps her discover what is most important in her life.
LibraryThing member maggiereads
Booktalk NOT book review!

What do you do when your mother does something exceptionally weird? So weird in fact you are thinking of having her committed. I mean, even at her best, she always seems to stand on quaking ground.

My mother, Nelle Dubois, wasn’t always this way. Before she lost her
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husband, she never missed a picnic or clambake. She would be the first in the water when tide was out and the last to leave the annual Mermaid Festival parade. Now she spends her time in religious ceremonies, constant rosary chants and cooking meals for the island’s Benedictine monastery.

It hasn’t always been easy, being the daughter of one so morose. Before Dad’s tragic accident, I could tell she loved me, although a little removed. It was my father that doted on me. He would sing my name Jessie Jessie Jessie as he barreled through the front door after work. I was so special to him; he even named his boat after me, Jes-Sea.

Maybe this island has driven her to do such a horrible thing. Some crazed island fever, like cabin fever, the same fever which drove her to bury an old tub in the front yard. Just halfway that is, so she could place Mother Mary inside and plant flowers all around—an icky grouted grotto, for all to admire.

Possibly the people themselves have led to Mother’s derangement. Can you believe our little island has a mermaid saint? Something the tourists just eat up. I mean, slap a mermaid on it and its gold. The island is literally littered with hundreds of yellow signs stating, “Mermaid Xing.”

We call her Saint Senara, and every April 30, we carry her throne through the sandy lanes of Egret Island. On the backs of celibate monks, aloft for all to see, breast of mermaids swaying in the island heat. Maybe the whole island nation could use a little time in a padded cell. Might be something the monks could rent out for income.

I mean to say, this is how I left the island 23 years ago. I left golf cart commuters, slave cemetery viewers, and mermaid lovers behind—far behind, until the implausible late night call. My mother, saints preserve us or should I say mermaids preserve us, is less one finger. It seems she voluntarily, without accident, donated a digit to the Lord during her nightly monastery cooking.

Southern author Sue Monk Kidd of The Secret Life of Bees improves upon her craft with second book The Mermaid Chair, packed with love, mystery, and candid meaning.

Maggie's Note: I'm taking on the persona of main character Jessie Sullivan. These words are my choice as an actress and not actual quotes from the book.
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LibraryThing member gfreewill
This book tells the story of a crazy mother who cuts off her fingers one by one and the daughter who has to come back to her island home to take care of her, leaving a dying marriage. The daughter ends up falling in love with a monk from the island’s monastery and the book revolves around the
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mystery of her mother’s madness and her own failing marriage.
The author of this book wrote The Secret Life of Bees. It was decent and had some romance and mystery in it and I was satisfied with the ending, which is more than I can say for a lot of books.
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LibraryThing member SuzannaQ
Interesting, and made me want to again find out more about these propsed Saints and biblical stories that are mentioned. However, not as nice in developing plot or character. Kept me hooked to finish the book and it ready quickly, but the characters were only half as entertaining as in "Secret Life
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of Bees".
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LibraryThing member coricouture
Still working on this one. So far, the writing is lovely. I'm enjoying it very much.
LibraryThing member TanyaTomato
This book wasn't very interesting, and it didn't have a compelling story. I didn't even care when the whole mystery was solved because it just didn't seem plausible.
LibraryThing member Allisinner
after enjoying The Secret Life of Bees, I was very much looking forward to reading kidd's next novel. Unfortunately it did not live up to my expectations. I will admit to my own bias though. I never seem to be able to relate to female characters that are unsatisfied with their home life and have a
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"romantic" affair. I never think of myself as a prude but I have a hard time sympathsizing or romantisizing adultery.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Setting: Egret Island [imaginary barrier island along the coast of S. Carolina] in the winter and spring of 1988

First Line: "In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a
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Benedictine monk."


Jessie Sullivan: beautiful Hugh's wife, Dee's mother, Nelle's daughter
Hugh Sullivan: beautiful Jessie's husband, psychiatrist, stalwart, cooks
Brother Thomas: handsome Benedictine monk formerly known as [Lawyer] Whit O'Conner, named for Doubting Thomas
Nelle Dubois: Jessie's mother, denizen of Egret Island, crazy
Kat, Benne, Hepzibah: friends of Nelle's
Jessie's father: looming presence, died when Jessie was nine

Loveliest turn of phrase:

[referring to the idea of seeing a psychiatrist] "...I couldn't quite bring myself to go that far - all that paddling around in the alphabet soup of one's childhood, scooping up letters, hoping to arrange them into enlightening sentences that would explain why things had turned out the way they had."

Main themes:

1. appeal of, and need for, "a solitude of being." which leads to...
2. [quote from Yeats:] "... Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."


Charming prose, hackneyed plot. Pleasant read, albeit some unresolved threads and disappointing ending.

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LibraryThing member plyon
Forty-three-year old Jessie Sullivan is pulled out of her staid life in Atlanta with her husband and daughter, back to her childhood home on Egret Island after her mother, Nelle, cuts off one of her own fingers. Jessie has been uneasy with the island since her beloved father died when she was nine
Show More
in a boating accident, a tragedy Jessie has always felt partially responsible for. At the behest of her mother's best friend, Jessie journeys back to the island to try to reconnect with the mother she's never been close to. Jessie wants to know what drove her obviously disturbed mother to sever her finger, and she thinks Father Dominic, one of the Benedictine monks who resides in a nearby monastery, might know more about her mother's state of mind. But it is another monk who claims Jessie's attention--handsome Brother Thomas, who ignites in Jessie a passion so intense it overwhelms her, leading her to question her marriage and rediscover her artistic drive. Kidd's second offering is just as gracefully written as her first and possesses an equally compelling story.
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LibraryThing member sflax
It's no Secret Life of Bees. But when it's not hitting the reader over the head, it's good.
LibraryThing member kims-embroidery
I didn't buy into the story from the beginning line "I fell in love with a Benedictine Monk" ...I did read the entire story but struggled to have any connection with the main character.
LibraryThing member margaretplays
Terrific descriptions of place that remind me of where I grew up, and a few genuinely honest and scary moments. Otherwise, yuck! Cliched, sappy romance.
LibraryThing member mbergman
Kidd's earlier Secret Life of Bees was the standard coming-of-age-in-a-dysfunctional-family story, but I thought she at least partically transcended the limitations of that genre. Here again, she relates a standard story form--the middle-aged woman whose child leaves home & who realizes she's lost
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her identity in her husband & child, so goes off to find herself & confront secrets in her (& her estranged mother's) past. But here she fails to transcend the genre & in fact repeats (& repeats & repeats) many of the cliches of the genre.
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LibraryThing member princessponti
The Mermaid Chair – Sue Monk Kidd

From the author of The Secret Life of Bees comes another vividly descriptive book, The Mermaid Chair.

The novel details a tempestuous time in the life of Jessie Sullivan, dependable wife and mother. At a time when she was feeling trapped in her settled and routine
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life with her husband; Jessie welcomed the opportunity to go home to Egret Island, after her mother has an ‘accident’. Upon returning to the island, after five and half years of being away, Jessie embarks on an emotional journey; as her soul re-awakens.

In a drastic departure from her quiet married life, Jessie begins a torrid affair with a Benedictine Monk, revelling in her new immense feelings of sexual desire, freedom and longing; and releasing her to find the real Jessie that had got buried during her marriage. The question of whether her marriage will survive the end of the book is one that kept me in agony, knowing how she felt about both the men in her life. I also really felt for both the male characters as the author gave enough depth to their characters to make me care what happened to them.

The sub-plot of her mother provides an equally emotional distraction to Jessie’s unfaithfulness. Her mother’s instability and the secrets surrounding her father’s death give an air of mystery to the novel which peaked my interest to try and discover the truth.

As with The Secret Life of Bees, this book is incredibly descriptive. It is set on an island for which Sue Monk Kidd has beautifully created the look, feel and smell of each scene; and for me, it perfectly captured the feeling of time spent by the sea. As an example…”…the aroma of the island penetrated, a powerful brew of silt, old crab pots, salted air, and black, gooey mudflats alive and crawling with pungent creatures”. Even now, I can close my eyes and picture the sights and sounds of Egret Island.

The Mermaid Chair has a nice easy pace and is very easy to read, with enough going on to pull you through and keep you interested. It explores themes of religion, faith, love, relationships and the strong bonds between female friends. I wouldn’t rank this book as one of my all time favourites, but it was an enjoyable read. I loved the self discovery aspect of the novel and how Jessie became a whole person again, taking control of her own life. I did find it a little too emotional at times for my taste (I don’t cope well with story lines of unfaithfulness), and also some of the scenes involving the mother were sometimes a little strong; but on the whole I would recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member MistyB
Mermaids, Monks and Missing fingers...

You've got a woman who paints mermaids and has to go back to her childhood home to try to figure out the reasoning and psyche of a mother who just chopped off her finger in a monestary kitchen, a reluctant monk who is hiding from himself and the world, sultry
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southern afternoons spent in a hidden rookery, along with goddess lore and ritual. Oh, and a puzzling plot centered around a dark childhood secret...all the makings of a perfect summer read. Who could want more, right?

To be perfectly honest, I probably would have picked this book up, glanced through it and put it back on the shelf, leaving it for some other person in an the Atlanta airport (ironic since the story is set in Atlanta, I know) searching for something interesting to read...if it hadn't been for the title and the beautiful cover. I'm a sucker for packaging, such a serious character flaw.

I would have missed out.

In The Mermaid Chair, Kidd takes us on such a vivid and wondrous journey through not only the swampy tides of Egret Island, but the deep and muddled tides of the soul as well. Intertwining goddess myth and ritual with mysteries of the heart, she unveils a story of self-realization and spirit rebirth that is easily identified with.

Visually, the novel is stunning. Teaming with images of hot, sultry afternoons spent paddling a skiff in a nature preserve where glorious birds abound and insects drone. You want the images to go on and on. You want to get lost in them, especially since they are the backdrop for a secret rendezvous (and by the way, you want to get lost in that too).

One could argue that this is nothing more than a step up from a sugary Harlequin, and there are some aspects of the plot that lend themselves to a formulaic plot of internal torment and subsequent seduction. But Kidd's descriptive narratives and soul searching passages elevate the story, make it something more touching and contemplative.

Those that would argue this is simply a beach read romance clearly are missing the very heart of the themes and symbols Kidd so bewitchingly weaves in. Mermaid goddesses, enthralling water rituals, the bonds of women, strained relationships between mothers and daughters, loss of identity, death and rebirth, water and it's associated's all in there. Throw in the mystery plot of some dark deed once committed and you have a thought provoking read.

The Mermaid Chair takes us through one woman's version of having love, finding love and reconciling extremes. She captures the feeling all so perfectly in her passage, "I slid my hand away and felt my heart go. Like fingers turning loose of the side of a boat. Dropping through layers of water." So achingly painful, so agonizingly vivid.
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LibraryThing member Kathy89
Strange story about a woman bored with her life who goes to take care of her mother on an island after she (the mother) cut off her index finger. The woman starts an affair with a monk while trying to help her mother. Lots of religious and mythical references.
LibraryThing member bookheaven
I only read half this book. I hated it so much I couldn't finish it which is VERY rare for me.
LibraryThing member MoiraStirling
Lovely book. Well written imagery. Very well developed main character. Interesting to see the anatomy of three relationships: that of a mother and daughter, a wife and husband, and a woman and her self. Nicely constructed. Ms. Kidd does fall into the trap of the "American Wife" complex, but this
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does not necessarily detract from the point. (Ref. Dalma Heyn)
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LibraryThing member buckeyeaholic
YUCK! YUCK! YUCK! Bored wife, goes to take care of Mom for a while & meets the handsome, young, disillussioned new monk at the monestary next door. Hmmmmmm, I wonder what will happen next?
LibraryThing member bibliophile26
Who didn't love The Secret Life of Bees? Unfortunately, I couldn't have hated this book more. Maybe it is because I could not relate to the main character, a middle-aged woman who gets fed up with her life and her marriage and returns to her hometown. I disagreed with the main character's decisions
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in the end of the book.
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LibraryThing member shejake
This book hit home with my personal state of mind. I thoroughly enjoyed it as I could relate to the finding one's independent self after many years of being someone's wife, mother, etc.


Quill Award (Winner — General Fiction — 2005)




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