Kidd: The Mermaid Chair (2005)

I helped my father to move a couple of weeks ago. In the process he weeded out his library. I grabbed Sue Monk Kidd‘s “ The Mermaid Chair” from the to-be-given-away pile, because I thought my wife would like it, considering that she did Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.” I was right, she read and liked it, although halfway through the book it seemed a bit too much of a downer for her.

Last week, when I found myself alone with our sleeping toddler in the car with this no other book in the trunk I started to read it myself. The girl slept for more than an hour, so I got into the book to the point, where I was curious how it all plays out. Now that I did finish the book I am happy I read it. It’s not the kind of book that I usually read, thus I feel it widened my horizon.

The story usually would be too melancholic for me, but the religious musings balanced it for me. The heroine is a 40 something woman, who happily lives with her husband of 20 plus years. But when her mother cuts off one her fingers she returns to an extended visit to the island she grew up. In re-exploring the island, the old friends, the local monastery–in search for answers about her mother’s causes and her father’s death when she was nine–she falls in love with a monk. It’s mostly written from the heroine’s perspective, so we learn a lot about her mental, sexual ad spiritual stages. Eventually she makes a decision between the monk and her old cozy, but boring life and learns the details of her father’s death too. Yes, there is a big secret unveiled and no, I am not telling who she chose.

There are two not-o-minor details that make this book more than a silly romance novel or a simple detective story. The chair in the book’s title fuels a lot of imaginative stories and is interwoven into the plot itself. The chair sits in the monastery and depicts a mermaid, who became a saint. We keep returning to the question what it represented to different people. Then there is the Franciscan monk, who takes care of the rookery and the birds. It took me some time to realize that he, despite not yet took his eternally binding vows and despite having an affair with a woman, might be the closest to the spirit of Saint Francis and not just because they both loved birds and had doubts about God. Here is a quote I particularly liked from him (page 174):

“Sometimes I experience God like this beautiful nothing,” he said. “And it seems then as the whole point of life is just to rest in it. To contemplate it and love it and eventually disappear in it. And then other times it is just the opposite. God feels like a presence that engorges everything. I come out here, and it seems the divine is running rampant. The marsh, the whole of Creation, is some dance God is doing and we’re meant to step into it, that’s all. Do you know what I mean?”

As a student of religion I recognize a number of themes in this little quote, but rarely rad them in such a poetic, concise way. Thank you Ms. Kidd for these lines.

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