Both books deal with the primary subject of mother-daughter relationships, but in very different contexts and environments. The Mermaid Chair is set for the most part in the present day on an imaginary island (Egret Island) off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, that is inhabited by the Gullah people. Traveling With Pomegranates is really a travel memoir which takes the reader to such distant countries and cultures as France (several locations), Greece (Athens, Delphi, Eleusis, Crete) and Turkey (Ephesus, Patmos). In The Mermaid Chair, Kidd is dealing with an aging mother who is in a state of depression bordering on mental illness. In Traveling With Pomegranates, the mother is trying to understand herself as well as to assist her daughter who is going through the gauntlet of becoming a full-fledged and independent woman. In both books and in both cases, surrounding circumstances play a major role in the unveiling of the mother-daughter theme.
Off the Atlantic coast of Charleston, Jessie has come to stay with her mother who had been the cook for a local Catholic monastery and where she meets Brother Thomas and where the “mermaid chair” is a mythic cultural tradition and a kind of Gullah Mardi Gras. In this environment and while taking over some of the duties at the St. Senara Abbey for her mother, Jessie’s attraction to Brother Thomas grows, as does his for her. Hence the conflict and the moral dilemmas for both parties as this relationship develops and becomes an uncontrollable and yet infectious love. In this sense The Mermaid Chair, as wonderfully written by Kidd, is one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever read. The fact that it’s set in a beautiful tropical landscape only adds to the luxurious emotions generated by the author for these two middle-aged lovebirds.
Meanwhile, and while traveling with pomegranates (which is a Greek fruit delicacy and used here as a metaphor for the goddess of harvest and fertility — Persephone — while at the same time being the goddess of the underworld and a lovely girl attracting the attention of many gods), both mother and daughter delve into the mythos of the respective cultures they visit in an attempt to define themselves during new physical and social stages of their lives.
While in Athens, Kidd imagines Persephone in this quote from early in the book: “I think of Persephone eating the fruit in the underworld. How the flesh splits open to reveal a small, secret womb and the seeds spill out like garnets.” Everywhere the two of them go, there are ‘seeds’ spilling out from their subconscious creating a mythical path for them to follow and to understand on their physical and psychological journey to mythic parts of their relationship. As a male, I almost felt like an intruder reading this book, so intimate and revealing are the back and forth journal entries from both mother and daughter.
Back at the ranch on Egret Island, the Shakespearean “food of love” is playing on. And on and on it goes until their love plateaus and both Jessie and Thomas reach a catharsis at the crossroads of their escalating relationship. As Kidd so elequently puts it in the mind of Jessie: “I felt amazed at the choosing one had to do, over and over, a million times daily — choosing love, then choosing it again, how loving and being in love could be so different.”
While Jessie is going through this aha moment in The Mermaid Chair, daughter Ann, in Pomegranates, is going through her own moment of clarity and realization. “I wonder, instead of retreating and hiding, instead of pining for the way it was, what if I accept the way it is? This strikes me as both the most obvious thing in the world and the most profound,” she muses. This awareness comes to her while visiting the ancient site of Eleusis and the historic archeological site of the Eleusian Mysteries where female rites and rituals occurred for centuries when Greece was a matriarchy. As mother Sue fixates on and peruses the physical and mythic history of the Virgin Mother Mary to answer her deepest questions, daughter Ann is, little by little, enlightened about her new identity as a grown woman and about the process of ‘letting go’ as we, the readers, enjoy the travelogue and the banter between the two along the way.
In both of these books it’s about meaningful interior dialogues, certainly, but it’s also about “location, location, location” as they say in the cinematic world. And we get plenty of both from Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter as we travel through the rich landscape of their lives and across the physical and cultural landscapes of the planet Earth.