Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Book review: The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd is the first book that’s pissed me off in a long while. It’s not supposed to have done that - it’s fluff. But in reality, even just sitting here now and reading the rave blurbs on the covers is pissing me off even more: “Soulful in its probing of the human heart.” – San Francisco Chronicle. “Kidd draws connections from the feminine to the divine to the erotic that a lesser writer wouldn’t see, and might not have the guts to follow.” – Time. “…a quite powerful feminist statement … a multidimensional pleasure.” – Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Hogwash. The Mermaid Chair is lazy, irresponsible storytelling with a greedy, selfish protagonist at its center.

The story is this. Jessie, married for 20+ years, a fulltime homemaker/part-time artist, finds herself adrift in her life when her only child heads off to college. When Jessie’s estranged mother starts exhibiting erratic behavior, Jessie returns to the lush South Carolina island of her childhood to care for her mother. While there, away from her devoted (if slightly predictable) psychiatrist husband, Jessie indulges in an affair with a handsome monk who is about to take his permanent vows. This illicit relationship ultimately fails but in its wake Jessie finds herself a new woman: mending fences with her mother, coming to grips with her father’s death decades earlier, reveling in new artistic creations.

Greedy, selfish protagonist. I can understand a mother losing her center when her child goes away to school. That’s a great loss. And finding your life stultifying is completely identifiable. But my god, this character Jessie doesn’t have a fulltime job and is fully financially supported by her husband – she's got all the freedom and time in the world, and she chooses to have an affair at a moment's notice to figure out what she wants to do with her life? Ugh.

Throw yourself into the art you already create or try something new. Adopt a puppy. Plant a garden. Volunteer. See a shrink/massage therapist/acupuncturist. Learn a new language. Take a bunch of classes. Train for a marathon. Go home and rebuild your relationship with your mother. But don’t have an affair because you’re bored – and claim it’s the greatest passion of your life. That’s crap. Especially since SPOILER she ends up going back to her all-too-forgiving husband (who frickin’ takes her back!) at the end. She doesn't fight to keep this monk at all so he's clearly NOT the greatest passion of her life. Jessie nearly ruins four lives – her own, her husband’s, her daughter’s and her lover’s – because she is selfish, bored and greedy.

Lazy, irresponsible storytelling. I read The Secret Life of Bees. I don’t remember it, but I remember liking it … and therefore knowing that Kidd is a better novelist than this. Having the monk as Jessie’s love interest is lazy because WE ALL KNEW IT WOULD NEVER WORK OUT. He’s not a challenging character: he’s tidy and neat and was never going to end up with Jessie. He’s really more of a plot device than a great passion (which you could totally tell with the limp sex scenes – not at all sexy). And having Jessie’s husband take her back? Also lazy because Jessie didn’t really suffer or have to give anything up, and she certainly didn’t learn anything. By the end of the book she has this “empowering” new marriage with herself, her desires and her creativity – but she got everything she wanted without undergoing any real character growth.

What would have been a better story? Don’t let Jessie and the monk actually get together physically. Have them enter into a friendship, full of intense conversations about their lives and dreams, their hopes, their fears, their past pain – have them learn about themselves that way without acting on the temptation. There still could have been longing and passion and tension but keeping it unrequited makes it more suspenseful for the reader (this is not a Harlequin romance, after all). And at the end of the day Jessie still could have attained her empowered ends without decimating the lives of the people she supposedly cared about to do it.

I don’t know why I’ve had such a violent reaction to this silly book clubby book; it's sort of the same response I had to that appalling and stupid Bridges of Madison County. It’s not as though I’m some self-righteous stick-in-the-mud who’s never read a book about extramarital affairs; heck, if I want to read about “grand passion” and tormented love affairs I’ll go see what they’re recommending over at Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

I just think that if this character is supposed to be going through such major life-altering turmoil as to need to shatter the lives of the people around her, then some major life-altering should be the end result – and it’s not. Little has actually changed in Jessie’s life. I truly expected more from The Mermaid Chair.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! Friend Mouse Speak!...
    ...Thank-you! for the heads-up!
    and "squeak" "squeak"...This is one "book' that willn't be introduced to my cart!
    Oh! brother!...that "plot!" LOL!

    darkcitydame ;-)