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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Sue Monk Kidd’s lush, descriptive prose in The Mermaid Chair almost perfectly evokes the marshy, swampy coast of the Carolinas, and her characters all but jump off the page. It is the soap opera of a plot that is a let down.

And Consider This: A trio of mysteries by masters of the genre and their famed protagonists: Kay Scarpetta, Bailey Weggins and partners Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee

by Sue Monk Kidd, © 2005
Published by the Penguin Group
Hardcover, 332 pp

Fans of Sue Monk Kidd, author of the highly acclaimed The Secret Life of Bees, have been looking forward to this, her second novel. Alas, I fear it will disappoint them. The writing itself is just as fine as one could wish: Kidd’s lush, descriptive prose almost perfectly evokes the marshy, swampy coast of the Carolinas, and her characters all but jump off the page. It is the soap opera of a plot that is a let down.

Jessie Sullivan, a forty-ish wife and mother, is summoned back to the island home of her childhood when her mother, Nelle, a devout woman who cooks for the monks in a nearby monastery, has suddenly and deliberately chopped off one of her fingers. Leaving her psychiatrist husband, Hugh, to tend to things at home, Jessie reluctantly makes the journey to the place she had willingly left many years ago.

When Jessie was nine, her father died in an explosion on his boat. The official version was that a spark from his pipe had ignited a leak in the gas line. At that point, Jessie’s life pretty much fell apart. Her mother’s sanity began to slip, and over the years she became someone Jessie hardly knew. In addition, Jessie, who had given her father the pipe for his birthday, assumed a heavy share of guilt for the accident.

At the time of this story, she has not been back for many years. The events that take place occur at a time when Jessie is particularly vulnerable. She is suffering from the empty nest syndrome, as her only child, Dee, has just started college. Her marriage to Hugh has devolved into a comfortable but fairly boring relationship.

On the island, she falls hard for a man who is just a few weeks away from taking his final vows at the monastery. He is a widower, who describes himself as needing the aloneness of monastic life. However, the intense attraction is mutual, and he and Jessie start an affair.

Jessie’s husband finds out about the affair, and the rest of the story involves her decision over which man to choose. There doesn’t seem to be any possibility that she will choose neither. Thrown in with this is her discovery of the real story of her father’s death, which liberates her and offers hope of a cure for her mother’s mental problems as well.

There are several improbable moments in this book, not the least of which is nude swimming in a tidal creek (in water the color of milky coffee!), despite the fact that the island abounds in alligators. And anyone who has spent time on such a coastal island will find it hard to believe that one can make love in the wilds without sustaining myriad insect bites and other discomforts.

But it’s not the improbabilities that disappoint, in this book. It’s the trite plot and unsurprising resolution that let the reader down. If I wanted a soap opera, I’d have turned on the television.


Three mysteries: Cornwell, White and Hillerman>>

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