When Siddalee Walker, oldest daughter of Vivi Abbott Walker, Ya-Ya extraordinaire, is interviewed in the New York Times about a hit play she’s directed, her mother gets described as a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Enraged, Vivi disowns Sidda.
Devastated, Sidda begs forgiveness, and postpones her upcoming wedding. All looks bleak until the Ya-Yas step in and convince Vivi to send Sidda a scrapbook of their girlhood mementos, called “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”
As Sidda struggles to analyze her mother, she comes face to face with the tangled beauty of imperfect love, and the fact that forgiveness, more than understanding, is often what the heart longs for.
If you want to know if you are going to like this book or not, all you need to do is to read the prologue. It is only a page and a half long, but it perfectly encapsulates the setting, tone and characterisation of the book. It wraps you in the mood, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings of the Louisiana bayou and pulls you in to the book; a literary seductress of a prologue – I defy you to resist its siren call.
This is the third of the books I have chosen to accompany me to my Desert Island, to be read repeatedly in perpetuity and I had absolutely no doubt at all as to whether to include it in the list. I fell hopelessly and irrevocably in love with this book the first time I read it, and that love has remained unaltered – steadfast and true – through repeated readings over the intervening twenty-plus years. It is a book that has grown with me over that time, as I have matured from naive twenty-something to a woman in her mid-forties with now a history of relationships and children to inform my understanding of the book. It is a novel that gives you different things depending on from where in your life you come at it. A novel so rich in insight and understanding of the female condition that it will not age.
This book is, without doubt, the best book about female friendship that I have ever read, and given how much I read that is no minor feat. When I first read it in my early twenties, I was so moved by the depiction of the relationship between the four Ya-Yas, that I immediately bought a copy of the book for each of my three closest female friends, so I could share the experience with them, and I know I am not alone in feeling this. A whole movement of Ya-Ya clubs sprang up around this book as it moved readers to celebrate their own relationships with the women in their lives. Close female friendship is a unique and special thing, and Rebecca Wells portrays this perfectly. Just as in this book, my girlfriends have been there with me through all the important times in my life, good and bad. They have celebrated with me, commiserated, listened, advised, laughed and cried. At times they have literally carried me through periods when I thought I could not go on. They are always on my side, never judging, never criticising. They are the scaffolding that has kept me upright when my very foundations have been shaken by seismic life events, and this book dissects and celebrates the true bones of these relationships and their role in our lives.
As I’ve grown older and had relationships and family of my own, the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship which is also central to this book have also come into sharper focus for me and meant more. I have come to understand it better from the perspective of Vivi, rather than Siddalee, and it has added an extra layer of richness to the narrative for me. There is always some new perspective to find on every reading, it is a book rich in nuance that takes more than one reading to mine and, as a result, I never get tired of it.
In addition to the above, this book also gives the most magnificent sense of place of any book I have read and was the reason that I fell in love with the Deep South of the USA before I even visited, and Louisiana in particular. I wanted to experience all the richness that this book promised awaited me there, the heavy warmth, the spice of the food, the twanging patois of the vernacular, so unique to this place and its mongrel history and when I finally got there, it exceeded every expectation. This book took part of my heart and planted it in Louisiana and the call to return and find it continues to draw me back to this day. This is an extraordinary feat for any book and reason enough to pick it up, if the preceding praise was not sufficient. If you want a book that transports you to a different time and place, look no further, this novel will carry you away; it is a book you can lose yourself in completely.
This book touches on some difficult subjects, but that is part of what makes it so glorious. This book is real. It deals with real people, real problems, real feelings, real relationships. The characters are flawed but compelling and the reader cannot help but be drawn into their drama. The writing is sublime. It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, to give people this experience, this connection with characters, this sense of empathy. When Rowan Coleman gave a talk at the RNA Conference last year about finding the three words to describe your writing, the top one on my list was affinity. I want people who read my book to feel an affinity with my characters and what they are going through, even if they have not been through the same experience themselves. That is what I feel for the characters in this book, even though they inhabit a different world than mine. And it makes me want to weep, because I know that I will never write anything as good as this.
If you haven’t got the message by now, I adore this book. It is one of those novels that, when you have read it, you feel that it has changed you.
You can get a copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood here and I think I might have to insist that you do.
About the Author
Rebecca Wells was born and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana. “I grew up,” she says, “in the fertile world of story-telling, filled with flamboyance, flirting, futility, and fear.” Surrounded by Louisiana raconteurs, a large extended family, and Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s Parish, Rebecca’s imagination was stimulated at every turn. Early on, she fell in love with thinking up and acting in plays for her siblings—the beginnings of her career as an actress and writer for the stage. She recalls her early influences as being the land around her, harvest times, craw-fishing in the bayou, practicing piano after school, dancing with her mother and brothers and sister, and the close relationship to her black “mother” who cleaned for the Wells household. She counts black music and culture from Louisiana as something that will stay in her body’s memory forever.
In high school, she read Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” which opened her up to the idea that everything in life is a poem, and that, as she says, “We are not born separately from one another.” She also read “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s indictment of the strangling consumer-driven American culture he saw around him. Acting in school and summer youth theater productions freed Rebecca to step out of the social hierarchies of high school and into the joys of walking inside another character and living in another world.
The day after she graduated from high school, Rebecca left for Yellowstone National Park, where she worked as a waitress. It was an introduction to the natural glories of the park—mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, and geysers—as well as to the art of hitchhiking.
Rebecca graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where she studied theater, English, and psychology. She performed in many college plays, but also stepped outside the theater department to become awakened to women’s politics. During this time she worked as a cocktail waitress–once accidentally kicking a man in the shins when he slipped a ten-dollar bill down the front of her dress—and began keeping a journal after reading Anais Nin, which she has done ever since.
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