Sophomore efforts inevitably draw comparisons with a novelist's debut, especially if both critics and readers have hailed that first book. Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, drew raves and launched her into the pantheon of Important Women Writers. Kidd's second novel, The Mermaid Chair, explores many of the same themes as Bees - recovering one's story, uncovering family secrets, entering the circle of women's friendship - but fails to soar to the same heights. Still, despite some clunkiness, it's a worthwhile exploration of a woman's journey to break free of the constraints of convention.
The mermaid chair of the title sits in a Benedictine monastery on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, an island that's part bird sanctuary and part shrimping village. The protagonist, Jessie, returns to her childhood home there reluctantly after her mother's unaccountable act of self-mutilation. Although she loves her psychiatrist husband, Jessie feels her life has become "molded to the smallest space possible," and her time on the island - not to mention her relationship with Brother Thomas, a monk about to make his final vows - becomes a time to seek out her true self as she seeks answers to her mother's mental torment.
Two communities on the island present contrasting models of relationship: the male hierarchy of the monastery and the informal circle of friendship among the older women of the village. Jessie is an outsider to both communities, and yet the threads of her own history interweave the two groups. Unfortunately, the women here are not as richly drawn as those in Bees, and so their motives and actions often feel clouded in mystery or just plain contrived.
Kidd has been on her own spiritual journey for more than a decade, an awakening to feminist spirituality that she chronicled beautifully in her 1996 memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. I hope she continues to explore women's spiritual awakening through her characters, for as she wrote in her memoir, "If women don't tell our stories and utter our truths in order to chart ways into sacred feminine experience, who will? It is stories women need." Perhaps her next novel will move beyond stories of abandonment, parental torment, and marital strife to paint more fully an adult woman's journey toward the Divine Feminine.