I just finished The Mermaid Chair, a novel I started around a year ago, stopping many times to read almost 15 books in between the first and last pages. For some reason, I picked it up from my library a week ago, finishing almost 300 pages in 7 days. Now let me start by giving it a rating: I’d say 2 stars (out of five). I do not understand how it was a bestseller!
So, what is wrong with the book? Flat. Although there is a lot of diving into the minds of some of the characters, yet it’s as if you’re seeing someone is striving inside whether to go to the shoemaker or to go grocery shopping! Kidd could not get me emotionally involved but in the last 70 pages. The main plot of the novel (Jessie falling out of marriage and in love with a monk) is not closely as interesting as the sub-plot (the reasons behind Jessie’s mother cutting her fingers one after the other).
Kidd tried to make the novel a quest of realizing one’s self (a mystical journey, some might claim). I have to admit the speech at the end when Jessie said “All my life, in nameless, indeterminate ways, I’d tried to complete myself with someone else – first my father, then Hugh, even Whit, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to belong to myself” was powerful but not the journey itself. She has been through physical toil (of being with her mom through the stressful period of cutting her fingers, being hospitalized and through recovery) but not emotional/psychological one.
The novel is a not-so-good version of the masterpiece The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Many motifs (sea/water, (physical) love, clothes…etc.) in The Awakening are used in The Mermaid Chair. But most of them are not skilfully or profoundly employed as Chopin did in her novel. The final scene in The Awakening where Edna goes inside the sea is re-used here but I have to admit in a good way:
“When the water swelled above my knees, I stopped and dug in my pocket for the bits of twine I’d gathered off the lawn at the monastery. I wanted to tie a knot that would go on forever. But not with anyone else. With myself.”
Although the novel ends in the same status as before Jessie starts her self-realization quest- back to her marriage and abandoning her love, yet she has gone through re-birth; she lost her old self, went really deep in sin and suffering just to rise up with a new identity. Or as Whit, her lover monk, said that they were going to be each others’ damnation and salvation.