I didn’t have any idea what to expect with this book, but I really enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees, so I was hopeful. It might be a little premature, but I might have liked this one just as much, if not more. On the surface, it seems like a simple story, but the narration reveals more complicated and close cutting themes.
Our protagonist is Jessie Sullivan, a married mother of 20 years. We discover quickly that while she appreciates her husband and daughter, she doesn’t feel like she is thriving. Upon receiving news that her mother has chopped off her own finger, Jessie takes a pilgrimage to her hometown – which she has avoided for years.
Her mom has been cooking for the local monastery for years, and has become very religious since her husband’s passing during Jessie’s childhood. Because of her mother’s relationship with the monks, Jessie finds herself there as well. This is where the fates collide, and she meets Brother Thomas and they fall in love. As the affair deepens, as does her mother’s depression. When her mother cuts off another finger, her husband joins her in town and discovers the truth. This causes things to unravel, and Jessie is set on a path to discover the truth about herself and her father’s death.
When things come to light, she realizes where her love really lies, and chooses to love herself as well. It was a nice story, but if taken at surface level, it’s not very important. I think any reader could enjoy the word-craft. The descriptions of the island were vivid, and I loved the way that Jessie’s thoughts were described as well.
I think since I’m catholic, there was a deeper side to it that I understood easily. I enjoyed how the stories of saints were so influential in the life of this town, but also Jessie’s mother, Nelle. Sometimes that took a dramatic turn, but I could understand the devotion.
I have a general distaste for infidelity, and feel like it’s in too many books. But I understand that it’s a part of life sometimes, and that the temptation is there. Even though there was that, it bugged me more at how quickly Brother Thomas and Jessie felt compelled to one another. There was very little said between them at first, it was all just instant sexual attraction. I’m human, I know that’s a powerful force, but it felt unbelievable that such short interactions would cause them to forsake their promises.
When Jessie and Thomas (Whit) are facing the consequences for their actions, the theme of sacrifice comes up. Whit has to decide if he is going to sacrifice his life at the monastery for a chance of one with Jessie. On the other hand, Jessie is deciding if she’s going to sacrifice her marriage. This theme is important in faith, so that is clear within this book. But it’s more subtly portrayed with Nelle’s ‘sacrificing’ her fingers. And as things are revealed, you discover that Jessie’s dad made a huge sacrifice as well, that has affected both of them to present day. I thought it was beautiful how that all tied together.
Although Jessie wasn’t a character I particularly liked, I really valued her story towards the end. As she finds the truth, she is set free. But she also comes to realize she always valued herself based off of her relationship to the men in her life. She was her dead father’s daughter, her husband’s wife and finally, Whit’s lover. The story arch is that of Jessie finding herself and learning to love herself as she is. In the end, she has this moment in the water where she ‘marries’ herself, and she vows to love herself going forward.
It’s my personal belief that everyone needs to love themselves. For some, it happens later in life like with Jessie, and for most of us – it’s a lifelong, evolving process. I enjoyed following along her with that. This along with Kidd’s writing is why this book received 4 stars from me. It wasn’t an average 3, but it didn’t rise to the level of a 5 for me. I will be keeping this book, I enjoyed it and it looks nice on my shelf right next to “The Secret Life of Bees”.