"Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe" ~ Neil Gaiman (A Game of You)


The Mermaid Chair

I read differently now that I've decided to BE a writer, instead of just writing. No longer do I just pick something up and skim through it for pleasure, tossing it aside if it annoys me. Now I'm looking as much at the craft as I am the story. It makes the good books so much better, and dang it, I can't even put a bad book down now!

I picked up The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd earlier this year when I was in San Diego for my anniversary. I had loved The Secret Life of Bees, and I was looking forward to reading it. Sadly, it did not live up to my expectations. But I learned a heck of a lot! For instance ...

1. Skip the prologue. I've heard this advice before; now I have it perfectly illustrated. I'm not one who likes to be told what you're going to tell me. I like the journey -- let it unfold on its own. Also, her very first sentence annoyed me. "In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk." She follows it with "It happened during the winter and spring of 1988, though I'm only now, a year later, ready to speak of it."

How can she claim to be "in the middle" of her marriage, but it's only been a year since her affair? Isn't that a bit presumptuous? It introduced me to the Big Lie of the novel, that her affair had seemingly no affect on her marriage. But I'll get to that later.

2. Choose your format carefully. This really should have been a short story. I mean, I understood the first time she told me that Jessie's father's death was really important to her. Then she told me again. And again. And again... I also thought the mystery behind Jessie's mother's amputating her finger was way too dragged out. This would have been way more effective if it had been tightened up.

3. Watch your point of view. Most of the story is told from the main character's point of view. There were also a few chapters that switched to Brother Thomas's point of view. We knew that because she wrote Brother Thomas at the beginning of the chapter. The main character readily admitted that she didn't really know Brother Thomas, she just felt like she had known him all her life. Why did we need to learn so much about him that she wasn't even interested in discovering?

4. I'm a theme person. I admit it. I love themes. My favorite theme is redemption. I'm a real sucker for a good redemption story. This book had so many possibilities with all the religious symbolism and the complicated relationships. Alas, nothing was ever developed, and it left the story shattered into pieces of different puzzles.

5. Be TRUE. This is the biggest problem I had with the book. I could have overlooked all the other problems if there was a hint of reality to be found. But it never rang true. Jessie says she "fell in love" with Father Thomas. No, she didn't. She was infatuated with him and acted out of boredom. Father Thomas not only gave in to their illicit relationship, he pursued it from the beginning. Really? Can't we expect a little more restraint from a Benedictine monk? Lynnette from "Desperate Housewives" showed more moral fortitude than he did. Finally, after her summer fling, Jessie goes right back to her marriage without any consequences. Sure, she plays lip service by saying the marriage "wasn't quite like it was," and that Hugh forgave her in"precious sips" and "spoonfuls" (all described in less than two pages), but we get no indication that anyone actually suffered from her indiscretion.

6. The gauntlet is thrown. My current work in progress begins with the same theme. I personally believe that all good wives and mothers at some point in their lives realize that they have lost their identity in their roles. Sue Monk Kidd's solution is to run out and have an affair with a Benedictine monk and then get back to your life. I need to see if I can offer better than that. So, thank you, Sue Monk Kidd. I love themes, and I think you've given me a pretty clear vision of where I want to go next.

(And in case you think I've been too mean, I recognize that Sue Monk Kidd's revenge is quite simply that she has been published -- and sold over 3 million copies of her first book -- and I have not.)


Sue Jackson said...

Hi, Shelli -

Great post - very thoughtful! Since I have no desire to even attempt fiction writing (it seems like a mysterious magical thing to me!), I still just lose myself in the novels I read (if they're good enough), but I found your analysis fascinating.

I also loved The Secret Life of Bees and have never read The Mermaid's Chair, in large part because I'd heard that it didn't live up to her first and I didn't want to be disappointed.

I enjoyed your discussion of it, though!


Renee said...

Hi Shelli
I enjoyed hearing what you had to say about Sue Monk Kidd and her books. I have not read her book The Secret Life of Bees or Mermaid Chair. I want to read the first~ will forget about the second.
I read Sue Monk Kidd's work back in late 80's or early 90's. My favorite nonfiction was "God's Joyful Surprise" and the other I read was "When The Heart Waits". Both were inspirational nourishment.

Shelli said...

Thanks, Sue! Maybe if I had heard the same things you had, I would have skipped this one. But then, I wouldn't have learned so much either!

Renee -- After reading this book, it surprises me that she did some inspirational work in the 80's and 90's. I'm sure this one would be a real let down after the books you've read by her.

Renee said...

I know Sue Monk Kidd was married to a pastor..maybe still is? She wrote alot for Guideposts too...
I have been surprised by her complete switch in what she writes...

Kim said...

I just love analyzing books and seeing how others did things right or wrong. It's like sitting in one of their classes. Good job!!