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The Mermaid Chair


The Mermaid Chair Cover

ISBN13: 9780670033942
ISBN10: 0670033944
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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February 17, 1988, I opened my eyes and heard a procession of sounds: first the phone going off on the opposite side of the bed, rousing us at 5:04 a.m. to what could only be a calamity, then rain pummeling the roof of our old Victorian house, sluicing its sneaky way to the basement, and finally small puffs of air coming from Hughfs lower lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome.

Twenty years of this puffing. Ifd heard it when he wasnft even asleep, when he sat in his leather wing chair after dinner, reading through the column of psychiatric journals rising from the floor, and it would seem like the cadence against which my entire life was set.

The phone rang again, and I lay there, waiting for Hugh to pick up, certain it was one of his patients, probably the paranoid schizophrenic whofd phoned last night convinced the CIA had him cornered in a federal building in downtown Atlanta.

A third ring, and Hugh fumbled for the receiver. 8Yes, hello,e he said, and his voice came out coarse, a hangover from sleep.

I rolled away from him then and stared across the room at the faint, watery light on the window, remembering that today was Ash Wednesday, feeling the inevitable rush of guilt.

My father had died on Ash Wednesday when I was nine years old, and in a convoluted way, a way that made no sense to anyone but me, it had been at least partially my fault.

There had been a fire on his boat, a fuel-tank explosion, theyfd said. Pieces of the boat had washed up weeks later, including a portion of the stern with Jes-Sea printed on it. Hefd named the boat for me, not for my brother, Mike, or even for my mother, whom hefd adored, but for me, Jessie.

I closed my eyes and saw oily flames and roaring orange light. An article in the Charleston newspaper had referred to the explosion as suspicious, and there had been some kind of investigation, though nothing had ever come of it=things Mike and Ifd discovered only because wefd sneaked the clipping from Motherfs dresser drawer, a strange, secret place filled with fractured rosaries, discarded saint medals, holy cards, and a small statue of Jesus missing his left arm. She had not imagined we would venture into all that broken-down holiness.

I went into that terrible sanctum almost every day for over a year and read the article obsessively, that one particular line: 8Police speculate that a spark from his pipe may have ignited a leak in the fuel line.e

Ifd given him the pipe for Fatherfs Day. Up until then he had never even smoked.

I still could not think of him apart from the word 8suspicious,e apart from this day, how hefd become ash the very day people everywhere=me, Mike, and my mother=got our foreheads smudged with it at church. Yet another irony in a whole black ensemble of them.

8Yes, of course I remember you,e I heard Hugh say into the phone, yanking me back to the call, the bleary morning. He said, 8Yes, wefre all fine here. And how are things there?e

This didnft sound like a patient. And it wasnft our daughter, Dee, I was sure of that. I could tell by the formality in his voice. I wondered if it was one of Hughfs colleagues. Or a resident at the hospital. They called sometimes to consult about a case, though generally not at five in the morning.

I slipped out from the covers and moved with bare feet to the window across the room, wanting to see how likely it was that rain would flood the basement again and wash out the pilot light on the hot-water heater. I stared out at the cold, granular deluge, the bluish fog, the street already swollen with water, and I shivered, wishing the house were easier to warm.

Ifd nearly driven Hugh crazy to buy this big, impractical house, and even though wefd been in it seven years now, I still refused to criticize it. I loved the sixteen-foot ceilings and stained-glass transoms. And the turret=God, I loved the turret. How many houses had one of those? You had to climb the spiral stairs inside it to get to my art studio, a transformed third-floor attic space with a sharply slanted ceiling and a skylight=so remote and enchanting that Dee had dubbed it the 8Rapunzel tower.e She was always teasing me about it. 8Hey, Mom, when are you gonna let your hair down?e

That was Dee being playful, being Dee, but we both knew what she meant=that Ifd become too stuffy and self-protected. Too conventional. This past Christmas, while she was home, Ifd posted a Gary Larson cartoon on the refrigerator with a magnet that proclaimed me worldfs greatest mom. In it, two cows stood in their idyllic pasture. One announced to the other, 8I donft care what they say, Ifm not content.e Ifd meant it as a little joke, for Dee.

I remembered now how Hugh had laughed at it. Hugh, who read people as if they were human Rorschachs, yet hefd seen nothing suggestive in it. It was Dee whofd stood before it an inordinate amount of time, then given me a funny look. She hadnft laughed at all.

To be honest, I had been restless. It had started back in the fall=this feeling of time passing, of being postponed, pent up, not wanting to go up to my studio. The sensation would rise suddenly like freight from the ocean floor=the unexpected discontent of cows in their pasture. The constant chewing of all that cud.

With winter the feeling had deepened. I would see a neighbor running along the sidewalk in front of the house, training, I imagined, for a climb up Kilimanjaro. Or a friend at my book club giving a blow-by-blow of her bungee jump from a bridge in Australia. Or=and this was the worst of all=a TV show about some intrepid woman traveling alone in the blueness of Greece, and Ifd be overcome by the little river of sparks that seemed to run beneath all that, the blood/sap/wine, aliveness, whatever it was. It had made me feel bereft over the immensity of the world, the extraordinary things people did with their lives=though, really, I didnft want to do any of those particular things. I didnft know then what I wanted, but the ache for it was palpable.

I felt it that morning standing beside the window, the quick, furtive way it insinuated itself, and I had no idea what to say to myself about it. Hugh seemed to think my little collapse of spirit, or whatever it was I was having, was about Deefs being away at college, the clich+d empty nest and all that.

Last fall, after wefd gotten her settled at Vanderbilt, Hugh and Ifd rushed home so he could play in the Waverly Harris Cancer Classic, a tennis tournament hefd been worked up about all summer. Hefd gone out in the Georgia heat for three months and practiced twice a week with a fancy Prince graphite racket. Then Ifd ended up crying all the way home from Nashville. I kept picturing Dee standing in front of her dorm waving good-bye as we pulled away. She touched her eye, her chest, then pointed at us=a thing shefd done since she was a little girl. Eye. Heart. You. It did me in. When we got home, despite my protests, Hugh called his doubles partner, Scott, to take his place in the tournament, and stayed home and watched a movie with me. An Officer and a Gentleman. He pretended very hard to like it.

The deep sadness I felt in the car that day had lingered for a couple of weeks, but it had finally lifted. I did miss Dee=of course I did=but I couldnft believe that was the real heart of the matter.

Lately Hugh had pushed me to see Dr. Ilg, one of the psychiatrists in his practice. Ifd refused on the grounds that she had a parrot in her office.

I knew that would drive him crazy. This wasnft the real reason, of course=I have nothing against peoplefs having parrots, except that they keep them in little cages. But I used it as a way of letting him know I wasnft taking the suggestion seriously. It was one of the rare times I didnft acquiesce to him.

8So shefs got a parrot, so what?e hefd said. 8Youfd like her.e Probably I would, but I couldnft quite bring myself to go that far=all that paddling around in the alphabet soup of onefs childhood, scooping up letters, hoping to arrange them into enlightening sentences that would explain why things had turned out the way they had. It evoked a certain mutiny in me.

I did occasionally, though, play out imaginary sessions with Dr. Ilg in my head. I would tell her about my father, and, grunting, she would write it down on a little pad=which is all she ever seemed to do. I pictured her bird as a dazzling white cockatoo perched on the back of her chair, belting out all sorts of flagrant opinions, repeating itself like a Greek chorus: 8You blame yourself, you blame yourself, you blame yourself.e

Not long ago=I donft know what possessed me to do it=Ifd told Hugh about these make- believe sessions with Dr. Ilg, even about the bird, and hefd smiled. 8Maybe you should just see the bird,e he said. 8Your Dr. Ilg sounds like an idiot.e

Now, across the room, Hugh was listening to the person on the phone, muttering, 8Uh-huh, uh-huh.e His face had clamped down into what Dee called 8the Big Frown,e that pinched expression of grave and intense listening in which you could almost see the various pistons in his brain=Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney, Winnicott=bobbing up and down.

Wind lapped over the roof, and I heard the house begin to sing=as it routinely did=with an operatic voice that was very Beverly 8Shrill,e as we liked to say. There were also doors that refused to close, ancient toilets that would suddenly decline to flush (8The toilets have gone anal- retentive again!e Dee would shout), and I had to keep constant vigilance to prevent Hugh from exterminating the flying squirrels that lived in the fireplace in his study. If we ever got a divorce, he loved to joke, it would be about squirrels.

But I loved all of this; I truly did. It was only the basement floods and the winter drafts that I hated. And now, with Dee in her first year at Vanderbilt, the emptiness=I hated that.

Hugh was hunched on his side of the bed, his elbows balanced on his knees and the top two knobs of his spine visible through his pajamas. He said, 8You realize this is a serious situation, donft you? She needs to see someone=I mean, an actual psychiatrist.e

I felt sure then it was a resident at the hospital, though it did seem Hugh was talking down to him, and that was not like Hugh.

Through the window the neighborhood looked drowned, as if the houses=some as big as arks=might lift off their foundations and float down the street. I hated the thought of slogging out into this mess, but of course I would. I would drive to Sacred Heart of Mary over on Peachtree and get my forehead swiped with ashes. When Dee was small, shefd mistakenly called the church the 8Scared Heart of Mary.e The two of us still referred to it that way sometimes, and it occurred to me now how apt the name really was. I mean, if Mary was still around, like so many people thought, including my insatiably Catholic mother, maybe her heart was scared. Maybe it was because she was on such a high and impossible pedestal=Consummate Mother, Good Wife, All-Around Paragon of Perfect Womanhood. She was probably up there peering over the side, wishing for a ladder, a parachute, something to get her down from there.

I hadnft missed going to church on Ash Wednesday since my father had died=not once. Not even when Dee was a baby and I had to take her with me, stuffing her into a thick papoose of blankets, armored with pacifiers and bottles of pumped breast milk. I wondered why Ifd kept subjecting myself to it=year after year at the Scared Heart of Mary. The priest with his dreary incantation: 8Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return.e The blotch of ash on my forehead.

I only knew I had carried my father this way my whole life.

Hugh was standing now. He said, 8Do you want me to tell her?e He looked at me, and I felt the gathering of dread. I imagined a bright wave of water coming down the street, rounding the corner where old Mrs. Vandiver had erected a gazebo too close to her driveway; the wave, not mountainous like a tsunami but a shimmering hillside sweeping toward me, carrying off the ridiculous gazebo, mailboxes, doghouses, utility poles, azalea bushes. A clean, ruinous sweep.

8Itfs for you,e Hugh said. I didnft move at first, and he called my name. 8Jessie. The call=itfs for you.e

He held the receiver out to me, sitting there with his thick hair sticking up on the back of his head like a childfs, looking grave and uneasy, and the window copious with water, a trillion pewter droplets coming down on the roof.


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andream.z, January 21, 2013 (view all comments by andream.z)
I was able to get into this book really quickly after not reading much non-fiction this year. I really enjoyed the element of the mermaid and ocean legends surrounding the mermaid chair and how deeply that legend was reflected in Jessie's life. This is a great book about the creative process, in all its stages, appealing to artists and those passionate about living a creative life. Contemplation on the role of spirituality and the heart in our lives runs throughout the story. It is a thoughtful book about love, the many different forms of love and how important they all are to a well balanced life. Love is really at the core of all that we are capable of and Jessie makes a very romantic journey to learn this for herself.
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Product Details

Kidd, Sue Monk
Gilbert, Elizabeth
Hische, Jessica
Spiritual life
Married women
Romance - General
Love stories
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Paperback / softback
Penguin Drop Caps
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 12
9 x 6 in 1 lb
Age Level:
from 18

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Contemporary Women
Religion » Western Religions » Religious Fiction

The Mermaid Chair Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$3.95 In Stock
Product details 384 pages Viking Books - English 9780670033942 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Jessie Sullivan, the protagonist of this rewarding second novel by the author of the bestselling Secret Life of Bees, is awakened by a shrilling phone late one night to horrifying news: her mother, who has never recovered from her husband Joe's death 33 years earlier, has chopped off her own finger with a cleaver. Frantic with worry, and apprehensive at the thought of returning to the small island where she grew up in the shadow of her beloved father's death and her mother's fanatical Catholicism, 42-year-old Jessie gets on the next plane, leaving behind her psychiatrist husband, Hugh, and college-age daughter, Dee. On tiny Egret Island, off the coast of South Carolina, Jessie tries to care for her mother, Nelle, who is not particularly eager to be taken care of. Jessie gets help from Nelle's best friends, feisty shopkeeper Kat and Hepzibah, a dignified chronicler of slave history. To complicate matters, Jessie finds herself strangely relieved to be free of a husband she loves — and wildly attracted to Brother Thomas, n Whit O'Conner, a junior monk at the island's secluded Benedictine monastery. Confusing as the present may be, the past is rearing its head, and Jessie, who has never understood why her mother is still distraught by Joe's death, begins to suspect that she's keeping a terrible secret. Writing from the perspective of conflicted, discontented Jessie, Kidd achieves a bold intensity and complexity that wasn't possible in The Secret Life of Bees, narrated by teenage Lily. Jessie's efforts to cope with marital stagnation; Whit's crisis of faith; and Nelle's tormented reckoning with the past will resonate with many readers. This emotionally rich novel, full of sultry, magical descriptions of life in the South, is sure to be another hit for Kidd. Agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. 20-city author tour. (Apr. 5)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "Bestselling Kidd has a gift for language, but the saccharine aftertaste won't go away."
"Review" by , "Kidd's second offering is just as gracefully written as her first and possesses an equally compelling story. It should appeal to the many readers who made her first novel a hit with book clubs."
"Synopsis" by , Kidd's stunning debut, The Secret Life of Bees, spent 77 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, in her much-anticipated new novel, Kidd has woven a transcendent tale that will thrill her legion of fans and cement her reputation as one of the most remarkable writers at work today.
"Synopsis" by ,
From the celebrated author of The Secret Life of Bees, a New York Times bestselling novel about two unforgettable American women.
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.
Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimkes daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidds sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarahs eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each others destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and womens rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handfuls cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.
"Synopsis" by ,
The New York Times–bestselling second novel by the author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings (Viking, January 2014)

Inside the church of a Benedictine monastery on 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.

When Jessie Sullivan is summoned home to the island to cope with her eccentric mothers seemingly inexplicable behavior, she is living a conventional life with her husband, Hugh, a life “molded to the smallest space possible.” Jessie loves Hugh, but once on the island, she finds herself drawn to Brother Thomas, a monk about to take his final vows. Amid a rich community of unforgettable island women and the exotic beauty of marshlands, tidal creeks, and majestic egrets, Jessie grapples with the tension of desire and the struggle to deny it, with a freedom that feels overwhelmingly right and the immutable force of home and marriage.

Is the power of the mermaid chair only a myth? Or will it alter the course of Jessies life? What happens will unlock the roots of her mothers tormented past, but most of all, it will allow Jessie to comes discover selfhood and a place of belonging as she explores the thin line between the spiritual and the erotic.

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