Excerpt: 'The Mermaid Chair'

Sue Monk Kidd scored a literary smash with her debut novel, "The Secret Life of Bees." Now she's back with her follow-up novel, "The Mermaid Chair," which follows the story of Jessie Sullivan, a middle-aged woman whose stifled dreams and desires take shape during an extended stay on Egret Island, S.C., where she is caring for her troubled mother, Nelle.

You can read an excerpt from Kidd's "The Mermaid Chair" below.

Excerpt: Chapter One

February 17, 1988, I opened my eyes and heard a procession of sounds: first the phone going off on the opposite side of the bed, rousing us at 5:04 a.m. to what could only be a calamity, then rain pummeling the roof of our old Victorian house, sluicing its sneaky way to the basement, and finally small puffs of air coming from Hugh's lower lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome.

Twenty years of this puffing. I'd heard it when he wasn't even asleep, when he sat in his leather wing chair after dinner, reading through the column of psychiatric journals rising from the floor, and it would seem like the cadence against which my entire life was set.

The phone rang again, and I lay there, waiting for Hugh to pick up, certain it was one of his patients, probably the paranoid schizophrenic who'd phoned last night convinced the CIA had him cornered in a federal building in downtown Atlanta.

A third ring, and Hugh fumbled for the receiver. "Yes, hello," he said, and his voice came out coarse, a hangover from sleep.

I rolled away from him then and stared across the room at the faint, watery light on the window, remembering that today was Ash Wednesday, feeling the inevitable rush of guilt.

My father had died on Ash Wednesday when I was nine years old, and in a convoluted way, a way that made no sense to anyone but me, it had been at least partially my fault. There had been a fire on his boat, a fuel-tank explosion, they'd said. Pieces of the boat had washed up weeks later, including a portion of the stern with Jes-Sea printed on it. He'd named the boat for me, not for my brother, Mike, or even for my mother, whom he'd adored, but for me, Jessie.

I closed my eyes and saw oily flames and roaring orange light. An article in the Charleston newspaper had referred to the explosion as suspicious, and there had been some kind of investigation, though nothing had ever come of it -- things Mike and I'd discovered only because we'd sneaked the clipping from Mother's dresser drawer, a strange, secret place filled with fractured rosaries, discarded saint medals, holy cards, and a small statue of Jesus missing his left arm. She had not imagined we would venture into all that broken-down holiness.

I went into that terrible sanctum almost every day for over a year and read the article obsessively, that one particular line: "Police speculate that a spark from his pipe may have ignited a leak in the fuel line."

I'd given him the pipe for Father's Day. Up until then he had never even smoked. I still could not think of him apart from the word "suspicious," apart from this day, how he'd become ash the very day people everywhere -- me, Mike, and my mother -- got our foreheads smudged with it at church. Yet another irony in a whole black ensemble of them.

"Yes, of course I remember you," I heard Hugh say into the phone, yanking me back to the call, the bleary morning. He said, "Yes, we're all fine here. And how are things there?"

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