"The Mermaid Chair" by Sue Monk Kidd Viking, 320 pp., $24.95 In her best-selling book "The Secret Life of Bees" and now in her new novel...

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“The Mermaid Chair”

by Sue Monk Kidd

Viking, 320 pp., $24.95

In her best-selling book “The Secret Life of Bees” and now in her new novel, “The Mermaid Chair,” Sue Monk Kidd uses the South as her backdrop but taps into an existential vein that speaks to women everywhere.

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“The Mermaid Chair” is a misty, blue-green tale of midlife, about a woman whose reluctant reconciliation with her mother and her past leads her on a quest to build a more meaningful life in the here-and-now.

The story takes place in 1988. Jessie Sullivan has been called back to Egret Island, off the coast of South Carolina, to tend to her mother.

The two have had a strained relationship ever since the accidental death of Jessie’s father when she was just 9. In the past few years, the strain has calcified into outright estrangement. Jessie, unable to bear her mother’s increasingly eccentric behavior, has retreated to the predictability of her life in Atlanta as a psychiatrist’s wife who dabbles in art.

With her daughter away in college, Jessie has begun to feel inklings of discontent, but it is an alarming call from one of her mother’s friends that yanks her out of her placid world and thrusts her into a series of new experiences and difficult decisions.

Jessie’s mother, Nelle, has chopped off one of her fingers while at her job as cook for the Benedictine abbey on the island. Apparently, it was no accident. Jessie needs to go oversee her mother’s recuperation and find out why she would do such a thing. Her psychiatrist husband offers to help, but Jessie refuses, suddenly craving a chance to get away, even under these circumstances.

What she discovers upon arriving at Egret Island is that there really is no “getting away,” particularly in this close-knit community. There is, however, a chance to weigh the life choices she and others in her family have made. She revisits her old haunts: the beaches and marshes, the cemetery, and the Mermaid Chair in the monastery. The ornate chair celebrates the life of a mermaid who was forced to abandon her underwater life for a life in service to the church. Jessie’s undevout father had always particularly liked the chair and its intimations of sensual delights.

When she is at the monastery, Jessie meets Brother Thomas. Although he is a monk, she feels a powerful attraction to him. Suddenly she has no desire to go back to the mainland any time soon. But a new man in her life and a change of scene only raise additional questions. When Jessie finally stumbles upon some of the answers she had been seeking, they are not easy to take.

Kidd uses lush language and sustained metaphor in this illuminating investigation of midlife malaise. The love affair is a little hard to buy into. The monk might as well be a cutout from a romance novel, and just what is it our middle-age heroine has that can make him so darned moony over her? Still, women of the so-called “Sandwich Generation” will identify with Jessie’s rebellion from the status quo. “The Mermaid Chair” honors those who conjure up the courage to rediscover and recommit to their life passions.