A family emergency - her mother has injured herself - brings Jessie back to the small South Carolina island where she grew up, and where her father died when she was just a child. While trying to help her mother, she soon finds that maybe she needs help, too, in finding happiness in a life which has become stagnant. When she meets Brother Thomas, one of the monks at the local monastery, she finds herself experiencing feelings she'd thought she no longer possessed, and follows them into a voyage of self-discovery.
~The rest of this review contains SPOILERS~
I read this book because I loved Kidd's earlier work, "The Secret Life of Bees." I didn't enjoy "Mermaid Chair" quite as much, but I fear it might be because of my own (marital) issues, rather than any lack in the storytelling. The story is interesting - many times, I found myself reading later into the night than I'd intended. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the way Jessie and Whit felt about one another as they were falling in love. Also, the descriptions of Egret Island itself were wonderful - I could see the place in my mind, vividly, and wished I could go there, to pat Max on the head, or visit the Gullah cemetery - maybe even to sit in the Mermaid Chair myself.
I also enjoyed the description of Jessie's feelings, and her experiences, as she "dove" into herself, learning things about herself and her life that she'd long been denying - or never realized at all. Kidd paints a vivid and authentic picture of a woman going through this type of crisis - I suppose "mid-life" crisis is one way to describe it, but I hestitate to use this phrase (the connotation seems shallow, to me). It's really more a coming-of-age story, in spite of Jessie being the parent of a grown daughter. We watch as Jessie admits her unhappiness, tries to fill the empty places in her heart and soul, and comes out stronger on the other end, and Kidd does a wonderful job of showing all this.
There were, however, some things that I found less than satisfying. For instance, the issue of her father's pipe is huge in the story, and yet Jessie never once asks her mother the question that seemed obvious to me: why on EARTH had Nelle chosen to make Jessie believe (for years and years) that the gift she'd given her father was somehow responsible (or connected with, at least) her father's death? When Nelle tells Jessie that Jessie will hate Nelle for what she did, that's what I thought she meant. Certainly, assisting in the death of Jessie's father is an idea which takes some getting used to, but it was what he wanted. I thought Nelle's real crime was allowing her daughter to hold onto unwarranted guilt for most of her life (or, not noticing that her daughter felt guilty for having been the one to give him the pipe). For some reason, I couldn't get this issue out of my mind, and when the book concluded without resolving it, I felt disappointed.
I was also somewhat disappointed with the way things worked out for Jessie, although it seemed clear that she, herself, was happy about the way things turned out. I wanted her to be with Whit, even though I think I always knew that there wasn't any possibility for that to happen out in the "real world." Still, part of me is a "hopeless" enough romantic to want the "soulmates" to find one another and live happily ever after. (Of course, the argument could be made that this is exactly what happened; it's just that I never particularly liked Hugh. He came across like a pompous jerk much of the time). Still, I suppose it really was a happy ending, although I didn't feel particularly happy at the end of the book.
It was worth reading, though, even if it did bring up some uncomfortable feelings for me at times. Kidd is a great storyteller, and there was just enough mystical adventure about the book to make me feel transported to Egret Island while I was reading it. 7.5 stars/10