We sat in a globe of light, the smell of burning everywhere, and no one considered how a fire blazing right there beside the water might affect a woman for whom fire and water meant nothing but tragedy and death, a woman who could not look seawater in the face, who'd boarded up her fireplace. We were blinded by nostalgia for the woman she'd been before all of that. It makes me weep now to think how hard Mother must have been trying that night. (p. 243)
Jessie is forty-two, happily married but restless now that her daughter has gone to college. She has spent over thirty years blaming herself for the death of her father, killed instantly when a spark from the pipe she'd bought him ignited the fuel line on his boat.
Turns out her mother Nelle has also been blaming herself for Jessie's father's death -- and perhaps with more reason. Now madness seems to be creeping up on Nelle, despite the concern and care of the monks for whom she cooks. Now Nelle has cut off her own finger. Jessie, summoned to Egret Island -- the small island off the Carolina coast where she grew up -- has to deal not only with her mother's secret fear and guilt but also with her own.
The story's mostly told from Jessie's point of view but there are passages in other viewpoints: Brother Thomas, the monk to whom Jessie is drawn and with whom she explores the peaceful solitude of the marsh; Hugh, Jessie's husband, a successful psychiatrist who finds recourse in his professional skills. These add to the narrative, especially Brother Thomas -- whose voice gradually becomes that of Whit, the person he was before he was a monk.
The Mermaid Chair explores infidelity, despair, crisis of faith, mental illness and death: it also examines how a happy life may become a claustrophobic one, and how the limits of that life can be pushed at. Kidd's portrayal of island life -- the small community, the beauty of the natural world, the restrictions of geography -- is at once mirror and contrast to the emotional arc of the story: mirror because claustrophobic, contrast because Jessie's inner despair (or possibly just desperation) finds solace in the friends she left behind and the slow easy rhythms of life on Egret Island. And by the end of the novel she's made a commitment to the most important person in her life: herself.
This novel receives a lot of praise from readers who've hit a similar point in their own lives. I wonder how many of them find solace in the blunt reality of acceptance:
I had come to the irreducible thing, just as I had with my father, and there was nothing to do but accept, to learn to accept, to lie down every night and accept. (p.315)