Disturbing Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

This book has floated on the edge of my awareness for quite some time now. When I spotted a copy in the bargain bin at a used bookshop in Wellington, I thought, why not?

Well, shame on me! I don’t know WHAT compelled me to think I’d get along with a book containing “sisterhood” and “ya-ya” in its title. Where was MY divine intervention, to stop me from making such a grave mistake?

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - cover

Despite the fact that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is, for the most part, quite well-written, I felt dirty while reading it because of the blatant racism, classism, and sexism contained within its pages. I was horrified to learn that it sold a whopping 1.5 million copies in the two years following its publication. Who were those 1.5 million people? Why were they duped into thinking that Ya-Ya was a good novel? I think I have part of an answer, but it’s not a comfortable one.

There’s a long history of white women getting away with saying and writing problematic things. I’ve never read Gone with the Wind, but I’ve heard secondhand about how racist it is. Gone with the Wind is discussed extensively in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and it’s clear that author Rebecca Wells drew inspiration from the classic Southern novel. After all, the four Ya-Yas are essentially modernized Scarlett O’Haras, born 75 years too late to witness the destruction of the South. They still glorify and romanticize the hell out of it, though. Someone, somewhere (I can’t remember who) remarked that books and films like The Help end up being popular precisely because they are written by white women, while more critical (and important!) novels by people of color get shoved out of the market. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was a precocious middle-schooler, and I have to wonder what it was about my educational and societal circumstances that led me to think that was a good idea. At 12, I wasn’t shrewd enough to perceive the racism lurking beneath the abolitionist text, but I have no doubt that if I were to return to it today, I’d feel ashamed of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When I think of all of the wonderful stories that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood probably displaced, it really makes me wonder what kind of stories become popular, and why.

The disturbing elements of the novel are too numerous to name – and far too complex for me to attempt to thoroughly dissect – so in this review I will focus on four main issues: racism as evidenced by the lack of independent black characters, classism as conveyed through the assumption of wealth, willful ignorance regarding mental health, and sexism through the relegation of men to servile, sexual, or absentee roles.

Overview

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - title page

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood begins in 1959 on the Pecan Grove Plantation in Thornton, Louisiana. Siddalee Walker is six years old, and goes mostly unloved by her glamorous, alcoholic mother, Vivi. Vivi’s gaggle of equally-superficial, too-eager-for-a-cocktail friends refer to themselves as the Ya-Yas because of their alleged violations of Southern social codes. They are: tiny Teensy, a Cajun firecracker with a perfect body and a predilection for stripteasing at parties; bohemian Caro, who looks great in clothes thanks to her athletic physique; and mommy-ish Necie, who’s unremarkable apart from her long, beautiful hair. It’s important to note that Necie is the most conventional-looking of the four Ya-Yas, which is directly translated to mean that she also behaves the most conventionally. Physical attributes are directly mapped onto emotional ones, an unwelcome resurgence of the antiquated – not to mention false – concept of physiognomy.

Flash forward to 1993. Sidda is 40, a theater director working in New York. Her relationship with her mother has exploded thanks to an unfortunate feature in the New York Times in which Vivi is referred to as a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Vivi is furious, and refuses to speak to Sidda on the precept that her daughter has ruined her reputation. The problem is, though, that Vivi did abuse her children: she beat them so badly that she had to be institutionalized for a short period of time. Vivi makes it clear, however, that Sidda is the one at fault. Highly distressed, Sidda calls off her upcoming wedding because of the drama with her mother — a decision that, at least to me, makes absolutely no sense. So fractured is her delicate sense of self that Sidda has to retreat to a cabin on Lake Quinault in Washington State which, luckily, a wealthy friend of Sidda’s lets her borrow free of charge. Urged by her Ya-Ya girlfriends to repair the rift between herself and Sidda, Vivi reluctantly mails Sidda her scrapbook entitled “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The bulk of Wells’ novel consists of Sidda rifling through the pages of the scrapbook, remembering pieces of her childhood, and attempting to reconcile her feelings about her mother. These are interspersed with flashbacks to Vivi’s childhood and the formative years of her friendship with the Ya-Yas.

Racism
Black stereotypes, Cajun glorification, and Indian appropriation

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Ginger and hot chocolate

The portrait that Rebecca Wells paints of Louisiana and the Southern United States is unwaveringly white. Segregation is mentioned several times, but references to the Civil Rights movement are few – perhaps indicative of the way that many wealthy white Southerners ignored a movement that didn’t really interest them. Black women in particular are depicted as secondary to white interests; when the Ya-Yas take their children to picnic at Spring Creek, black women are mentioned only in passing – i.e., they prepare the picnic baskets.

In her discussion of the film adaptation of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Deborah Barker argues that the ambiguous Southern setting invokes a specific kind of nostalgia for an era in which women were not yet responsible for being aware of racism or feminism:

…many of the films are set not only in the South but also in the past, further distancing the audience not only from the 1970s women’s movement but also from the Civil Rights Movement and justifying the emphasis on white women as the subjects of film, while African-American characters play supporting roles. (93)

Sidda herself, allegedly the less-racist contemporary, claims to love both her “white mother” (Vivi) and her “black mother,” Wiletta. She makes the following grandiose claim about a third of the way into the book.

Wiletta, now almost eighty, still cleaned Vivi and [her husband] Shep’s house. Sidda and Willetta still exchanged letters. Vivi’s jealousy of their affection did not keep Willetta and Sidda from loving each other… Sidda cannot think about her mother without thinking about Willetta. And yet she can barely unravel her relationship with her white mother, let alone her black one. (114)

Despite this observation, the vast majority of Sidda’s reflections involve Vivi and Vivi alone. Sidda is not enamored of or confused by Willetta in the same way that she is by Vivi; Willetta, cast in the stereotypical black mammy role, offers uncomplicated love. Vivi, on the other hand, is permitted to develop a unique personality that necessitates deep reflection to understand.

Apart from Willetta, mentions of black characters are scarce. They are not an integral part of the story, but rather hover on the periphery, where, occasionally, they are called upon for favors by the white protagonists. In 1939, at the age of 13, Vivi demonstrates just how ignorant she is about racism in the following exchange. She is traveling with Caro and Teensy to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the premiere of the film Gone With the Wind. Ginger, Vivi’s black maid, is sent along to chaperone the girls on the train ride to Atlanta.

…then there was another knock on the door. And we all thought it was the conductor again, and so I climbed down and opened the door. It was a colored porter with three glasses of milk on a platter for us. I thanked him and he asked if we wanted our shoes polished. We all said, ‘Yes, thank you.’ And I got our shoes and handed them to him. Then he said in a whisper, ‘Ginger want to know if yall be doing all right. She say run two cars down if you in trouble and she take care of you.’ We were all surprised that he knew Ginger, but Ginger gets around, you know she does. I thanked him, and he said, ‘My name is Mobley if yall need anything.’ And so Mobley has just taken off with our shoes and he better bring them back or we’ll have to go sock-footed to the diner in the morning! (89)

This is the essence of Vivi’s relationship to African-Americans: they are there to be polite, to not ask questions, and to do her bidding when she requires it. From age 13 to age 31, Vivi only grows more racist. After giving birth to her fourth child, Vivi temporarily hires a black nurse, Melinda, and is horrified by the prospect that she will have to care for her own children after Melinda moves on. Despite the fact that she is perfectly willing to let Melinda bathe, clothe, and feed her children, Vivi lacks even an ounce of respect for her.

Melinda had stayed for three months to nurse Baylor and then she left me. She had to. She had another baby to take care of…
The monsters were all asleep for once. It was quiet. I could hear that low hum of the refrigerator. I did not want to beg a colored person to help me, but I couldn’t stop myself.
‘Melinda,’ I said. ‘I am begging you. Please don’t leave me. I cannot take care of these four babies by myself. Please, please do not leave me. I will pay you anything you want. I will make Mr. Shep get you your own car. How about that?’
I thought for a minute I had convinced her, thought for a minute she would stay. After all I had done for her and her family, I thought she might at least stay and help me.
‘Miz Vivi,’ she said, ‘they you children and you gonna have to tend them one of these days.’ (262)

Only the spoiled white woman is allowed to get tired of her kids. Not the black nanny who operates as a surrogate mother and gets paid terrible wages, all the while raising children of her own. 

While African-Americans in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya- Sisterhood are portrayed as servile, stoic, and undesirable, other “exotic” cultures are fetishized. Teensy, the dark-haired Cajun girl and one-fourth of the Ya-Yas, is continuously sexualized because of her perfect, petite body, swarthy skin, and French exclamations. So, too, is Teensy’s mother, Genevieve, idolized by the four Ya-Yas because of her beautiful “otherness.”

Teensy had jet-black hair and eyes that were almost as dark. Barely five feet tall, she had an olive complexion and tiny feet, almost like a child’s… Teensy had a perfect body, and we all knew exactly what it looked like. One of her eccentricities (when the gang really got going, when the bourbon was flowing, when the time seemed right, when she received the call) was to stage an elaborately drawn-out, sexy, and very funny striptease… Teensy always wore the skimpiest swimsuits. The Ya-Yas called her the Bikini Queenie and she was the talk of Garnet parish with her risque little numbers. I always imagined that she received those bikinis in the mail straight from Paris. (38)

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - history of the Ya-Ya tribe

Even more egregious, however, is the pseudo-religion that the Ya-Yas construct for themselves using elements of Native American culture. The girls assume that Native Americans are inherently closer to nature, that by engaging in “Indian” rituals they can bring a flash of uncivilized excitement into their lives. How else to explain the bizarre initiation ceremony that the girls hold in the bayou?

Teensy whips the empty oatmeal boxes out of her paper sack, and we all beat on them. And while we drum, we yell out to the night and the woods and the fire that we are now The Ya-Yas. Then Necie, Mistress of Names, formally gives all of us our Ya-Ya Indian names that we have chosen ourselves. Mine is Queen Dancing Creek. Caro’s is Duchess Soaring Hawk, and Necie’s is Countess Singing Cloud… ‘Everybody ready for ceremonial paint?’ Teensy asks, with one of her bad looks. ‘What?’ we all say. This is not in the program, but the Ya-Ya tribe plays things by ear. Teensy reaches into her sack and pulls out a bunch of Genevieve’s Max Factor of Hollywood tubes and pots of color, and pencils and lipsticks… We take turns drawing on each other until we could pass for full-blooded Injuns. (71-72)

It is worth mentioning that the girls are eleven when this scene takes place. Less problematic, perhaps, than the idea of four young girls unwittingly engaging in cultural appropriation is the fact that adult author Rebecca Wells thought this was an inspiring and unforgettable way to convey a close friendship. Bits of Indo-Cajun-religious lore are sprinkled throughout the novel, from frequent invocations on Sidda’s behalf to the Holy Lady in the moon, to ritual lightings of Virgin Mary candles, to contemplations about how walnuts are “food and seed at once.” These pseudo-religious, mother-earth-praising interjections only serve to further romanticize the “natural” South and emphasize the oft-disproven notion that women are inherently more in tune with their emotions. 

Classism: Assumptions of wealth

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Vivi and jewels

Make no mistake: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is all about wealth, and how said wealth allows you to ignore the unpleasant things in life. Everyone with a significant role in the novel is wealthy. Sidda is raised on Pecan Grove, a plantation with a whopping 900 acres. Teensy inherited her money in the form of Coca-Cola shares. So, too, are Necie and Caro well-off, though the source of their wealth is not explicitly stated. Sidda is wealthy; her Yale-educated fiance is wealthy; her theater director friend May Sorensen is wealthy (and oh-so-handily owns that cabin on Lake Quinault). It gets exhausting, to be honest. And cloying. Interactions with the less-well-off are not only scarce, but actively scorned. When Vivi and her friends make that infamous trip to Atlanta to attend the Gone With the Wind premiere, they are forced to observe poor people.

There were thousands of people lined up in a little park in front of the auditorium. Uncle James said they were the people who didn’t have tickets, and that they should have stayed away like Mayor Hartsfield requested. But they were standing out there in the cold, looking like the folks who live at Ollie Trott’s Trailer Paradise at home, with bad teeth and all. When the police gave them orders to move back, they did. We just walked right by them, Necie. Aunt Louise tried to make us hurry, but we all had trouble walking in those hoop skirts. (97)

It’s one thing to write a novel about the South in which you discuss race-based inequalities with a critical edge. It’s quite another to write a contemporary book set in Louisiana that makes the whole place seem like an Angel Food Cake, all fluff and prettiness and prosperity and laughter and friends and fun. It’s Southern romanticism, and it’s a dangerous thing.

Moreover, no description of the Ya-Yas is complete without a commentary on their wealth and appearance. Their physical and material beauty lends them credibility – after all, what’s so exciting about a group of four poor female friends?

To say that Sidda was startled by the sight of the three Ya-Yas pulling into the drive of the Quinault Lodge in a teal-colored Chrysler LeBaron convertible would be an understatement… All three women wore sunglasses… Teensy wore a pair of black linen slacks with a crisp white linen blouse. On her feet she wore a pair of little Robert Clergerie sandals, which probably cost more than her airfare from Louisiana. Necie was clad in a light-blue-and-white-striped skirt and blouse, looking very Talbot’s. Caro wore khakis and a white shirt – she could have been in a Gap ad. The backseat of the convertible was loaded with the kind of luggage that one does not normally see at park lodges in the Western United States. It was the kind of luggage one associates with Southern women of a certain era who believe that it is their duty to make sure that doormen and porters make a good living, and that it is impossible to arrive in a new place without a pair of shoes to match every possible change of clothes. (282-283)

In other words, the Ya-Yas are high maintenance, and painstakingly so. More problematic is that their materialism is a source of praise, a source of whimsy; the commentary about their clothing and luggage stems from the kind of reasoning that glorifies shopping dates and other excursions in which large sums of money are spent by all participants. Isn’t capitalism just a hoot?

Mental health:
The victimization of ViviDivine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Vivi drops her basket

Let’s tally Vivi’s sins: She’s vain, selfish, racist and rude, and on top of all of that, she’s close-lipped about her mental health issues. It is established within the first few pages of the novel that Vivi had a mental breakdown and beat her children viciously, yet clarity on this point is never truly achieved. Thirty years after being beaten by her mother with the metal end of a belt, Sidda receives something like closure from Caro, since Vivi is too proud and ashamed to talk about the episode herself. Apparently, Vivi got a prescription for Dexamyl, then went on a 4-day Catholic retreat. When she returned, she decided the devil had invaded her kids, and that the only way to get rid of Satan was to whip him out. After a three-month stint in the mental hospital, Vivi returns, still shaken, and completely refuses to talk about the episode. In fact, she never discusses it with her children at all. She only refers to it as a euphemism: “I dropped my basket.”

There is never any suggestion that Vivi should own up to her mistakes. Indeed, Rebecca Wells goes out of her way to paint Vivi as a character deserving of sympathy. First, there is the fact that Vivi’s father also punished her with a belt, which left ugly marks on her beautiful true-blonde skin. Then there is Vivi’s mother, a strict, religious woman whose devotion to Catholicism allows her to criminalize her daughter. The reason that Vivi is so fragile, we are to understand, is twofold: First, her true love, Jack Whitman, died when she was 16, and she never recovered. Second, Vivi’s mother sent her to Catholic boarding school for half a semester, where poor Vivi, surrounded by ugliness, severity, and oversalted food, starves herself and ends up in the hospital ward. Physiognomy rears its head again in a letter addressed from Vivi to Caro:

Dear Caro, Every single girl at this school is ugly. I do not mean plain, I do not mean homely. I mean ugly. This is one of those schools where there are two types of girls: (1) the daughters of Catholic nuts; and (2) bad girls who they want to punish. I guess I fit in both categories. They’re all ugly and they stink. The whole joint reeks like sauerkraut and old men’s socks…

My room here is not a room. It’s not even a cubby-hole. It’s a pen, a hole, a cell… I asked the nun who brought me here where my closet was. She said,’ You have no closet.’

‘I need to hang my dresses,’ I said. (210-11)

Are the girls at the school ugly because they are unhappy, or are they unhappy because they are ugly? Poor Vivi, with nowhere to hang her party dresses! The most ridiculous thing about this overwrought scenario is that Rebecca Wells seems to expect that her readers will feel sympathy for Vivi. Well, I suppose a few million did. Wells obviously has her issues with the Catholic Church, and to be honest, many people do. But the way in which she condemns the religion is overdramatic and simplistic at best.

Sidda must constantly be on guard when speaking and interacting with her mother. As a result, their conversations are necessarily stifled, full of one-sided praise.

Afraid to say the wrong thing, Sidda said nothing. She shelled the crayfish and ate. ‘This is delicious.’ 

‘Thank God Louisiana men know how to cook,’ Vivi said.

‘Not as sophisticated in its flavoring as your etouffee, of course’ [Sidda replied].

‘Necie made sure you had some?’ Vivi asked.

‘I had forgotten food could taste like that,’ Sidda said.

‘You really thought it was good?’

‘Good?! Mama, the etouffee you sent up with the Ya-Yas would have made Paul Prudhomme weep over his cast-iron skillet. That man is a short-order cook compared to you.’

‘Well, thank you. I am known for that dish, if you recall.’ (344)

Vivi’s pride gets in the way of her being a capable, loving mother, but her glaring personal defects are supposedly forgivable because of her snarky and vivacious personality. Unfortunately, throwing regular temper tantrums does not a compelling personality make. Referring again to the episode in which Vivi begs a black maid to take responsibility for her children, Vivi subsequently takes off on a four-day jaunt to the Gulf of Mexico dressed in nothing but a cashmere Givenchy coat. She drinks, sleeps, and drinks some more, having left her children – and the caretaker – with zero explanation. Vivi argues that she was not destined to be a housewife, that she was instead meant to be glamorous and famous, and that it is unnatural to expect her to change diapers and warm up bottles of milk. It’s not that Vivi didn’t want children; she did, but is displeased with the reality and the responsibility. Eventually, she convinces herself to return home, but not without “tucking away” a piece of herself first.

I was thirty-one years old. I was still alive. I would take chunks of myself and store them in a root cellar. I would take them out when my children were grown. (281)

As though motherhood is nothing but unmitigated misery. It’s the height of selfishness to describe it that way. Nonetheless, Rebecca Wells is determined to furnish a happy ending, where Sidda weds Connor in a field full of sunflowers wearing her mother’s wedding dress. As Deborah Barker argues, “The happy ending depicts mother and daughter coming together on the porch swing in a scene that is the ultimate validation of the abused child” (110). And, as I would argue, the ultimate validation of child abuse. 

Sexism & Superficiality

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Connor McGill

In terms of its depictions of men, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is about as progressive as Desperate Housewives. The men in the book, who are very rarely mentioned, fit into stereotypical categories. First, there are the absentee fathers and husbands, who never speak to their wives, let alone help them with chores. Chick, Teensy’s husband, is the glorified exception. Because he worships Teensy’s Cajun heritage – which, as we have already discussed, is a form of racist fetichism – cooks all of the meals, and caters to her every whim, he gets a pass from Rebecca Wells.

A small wiry man of around seventy stepped toward the car. He was wearing a plaid bow tie and a finely tailored shirt, looking a little like a cross between an aging horse jockey and Mr. Peepers.

‘You must be Connor,’ Chick said, giving him a kiss on the cheek in the European fashion. ‘I’m La Teensy’s lesser half.’

‘You darling man,’ [Sidda] said to him, smiling. ‘Where is Teensy? Where are all the Ya-Yas?’

‘La Teens needed her beauty rest,’ Chick said… ‘Sidda, please don’t snitch and tell your amoureaux that I’m a faux Cajun. I can’t help it if I only married into majesty.’ (339)

Husbands are only suitable if they behave as though their wives are royalty. It’s a fantasy, nothing more, nothing less, and certainly isn’t an argument in favor of gender equality. Sidda’s father, Shep, is so glaringly absent from her childhood narrative that even her fiance, Connor, comments on it.

‘I don’t hear much about your dad,’ Connor said, reaching for his cup of latte. ‘He must be a brave man.’

‘What do you mean?’ [Sidda asked].

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘marrying a woman as strong as your mother. Finessing his own way through that band of women. What’s the French word for sisterhood? Communaute de soeurs.’

Sidda helped herself to a slice of cantaloupe. She thought of how much she’d missed her father. ‘He was never around much. I’ve been so obsessed with my mother I guess I haven’t paid much attention to Daddy.’ (329)

In Rebecca Wells’ world, only the (white) women are permitted to be emotionally complex. The men are side acts, ideally there to glorify their wives, to work and provide the cash for the women to spend, no questions asked. Because they could not possibly comprehend (or participate in) the deep, natural connection shared between mothers and daughters, they are completely cut out of the narrative.

The second role that men fulfill in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is sex objects. Connor, Sidda’s fiance, is consistently described in physical terms, and Sidda is repeatedly congratulated for ensnaring such a handsome man. Though he supports her emotionally, it is Connor’s sexual prowess that is perhaps even more important. We are told, again and again, just how well he is able to satisfy her.

[Sidda]’d had two long-term relationships, but it was not until Connor that she felt fully met and deliciously cherished. After they made love that day, they lay naked next to each other, their skin warm and flushed. Sidda sank down into the wide flannel embrace of their bodies, and she rested. For a moment she died a good little death, they died it together. And then her eyes began to fill with tears…When she stopped crying, he kissed her eyelids. Then he asked her to marry him. (22)

Perpetuating this type of fantasy scenario is unhealthy. It’s the prince charming complex dressed up in supposedly progressive terms. A woman can be highly intelligent with a successful career, but none of that really means anything until she finds a preferably attractive man who can satisfy her sexually, and, moreover, who wants to marry her. It’s written like a cheap romance novel by someone who constantly dreams of sexual satisfaction, but finds it in short supply. 

Not to be outdone, the women in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are also granted legitimacy based on their physical appearance. When Vivi returns from the mental hospital, 10-year-old Sidda is upset not because her mother sleeps all day and barely talks, but because Vivi has allowed her nail polish to chip — a grooming oversight that would normally never be permitted. As the novel progresses and Sidda moves closer and closer to forgiving her mother, so, too, do the physical descriptions of Sidda proliferate. It turns out that she is red-headed with long, luscious eyelashes and a tiny, sexy, petite body. When she finally returns to Louisiana, nobody bothers asking Sidda about her directing career; instead, they are preoccupied with her favorable appearance. 

‘You look good, mother. Really good.’

‘You look terrific,’ Vivi said. ‘I think you’ve lost weight.’

Sidda smiled. Her mother’s highest compliment.’ (344)

Ah, there’s nothing like a trip back home to Alabama to remind me that my university GPA doesn’t matter; it’s all about the hair, the makeup, the clothes, and most importantly, the figure. It calls to mind a disturbing article that I read in The New Yorker recently, in which the daughter of a model recalls the various warped ways that strangers commented on her mother’s beauty. This passage in particular struck me, because I realized that Rebecca Wells was doing the same thing in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

One day, my mom and I were having lunch with our good friend, the Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, whom I’d known since I was born. When my mom left the table for a few minutes to use the restroom, Dorothea said to me, out of the blue, ‘Do you think the reason you’ve loved your mother so much is that she’s so beautiful?’

I was a bit stunned and depressed by this question. The answer was no, definitely not. And yet, once posed, that question troubled me, and made me wonder if, on a subconscious level, my great love for my mother might have been partly caused by her beauty. I hoped not — and I very much doubted it. (source)

Unlike the insightful author of The New Yorker piece, Vivi and Sidda trade off memorializing each other through observations about physical appearance. Vivi, for example, claims that part of the reason she loves her children is because they are beautiful. 

My children were perfect, each one of them more gorgeous than I could have ever imagined. I thank God for not giving me an ugly child. It’s so much easier to love them when they’re beautiful. I made good babies. (269)

Not to be outdone, Sidda hesitates to condemn her mother partly because she is transfixed by her anachronistic beauty. She describes her mother’s body, hair, and porcelain skin several times throughout the book, effectively mythologizing her. 

In those days I knew Mama’s body down to the shape of her toes, her toenails covered in her trademark “Rich Girl Red” polish. Her blonde complexion with tiny cinnamon freckles on her upper arms, on her cheeks… She stood about five feet four inches tall in her bare feet and never weighed more than 115 pounds… She was not like the kind of mother I saw in books and movies. Except for her breasts, which were surprisingly full for her frame, she was not plump or round in any way. (41)

It’s a sickening way for parents and children to interact. Emphasizing the importance of attractiveness often comes at the expense of other, arguably much more important, qualities. One justifiably wonders if Vivi might have grown up to be less superficial, less spoiled, and less inclined to beat her children if she had been expected to become anything more than pleasant to look at. 

Conclusion

If Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has any redeeming qualities, one of them is that it’s not terribly written, at least not always. It’s a shame, in a way, because Rebecca Wells might have been able to produce something worth reading had she been able to overcome the shortcomings of the society in which she was raised. The novel is also somewhat useful in promoting the idea that beauty is not evil, that desiring and seeking out beauty is not, in of itself, a sinful act. Unfortunately, most of the progress the novel makes in that direction is undermined by its superficiality and obsession with female and male appearances alike.

On the whole, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood romanticizes the South and celebrates many of the things that contribute to its backwardness: the division of wealth along racial lines, the enforcement of rigid gender roles, and the tendency to shove unpleasantries like mental illness under the rug. Its appeal is clear: it offers readers the opportunity to indulge in ahistoricized tranquility, where money, feminism, and racism aren’t real concerns. It’s demeaning and demoralizing, and nobody should read or watch an inch of it.

At least I’m not the only one who reacted this way to the Ya-Yas. This fantastic review by a cynical male moviegoer made me laugh heartily.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is for women who spend their lives looking for surrogates for significance from the Franklin Mint. They’re ladies who think empowerment comes from Oprah Magazine, Beanie Baby collections and soft, fat, harmless men with accents who can cook. They think a shirtless Fabio is sex, and that actual screwing is too messy and smells funny. They don’t allow unhappiness into their lives because there’s no room left in their curio cabinets. They try to believe in words like “closure” and “nurturing” and that the diet in the latest Good Housekeeping really will change their lives if it helps keep reality at arm’s length. (source)

I couldn’t agree more.

Overall rating: 1.5/5 stars

Works referenced:

Deborah Barker, “The Southern-fried chick flick: postfeminism goes to the movies.” In Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. Edited by Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Persistent URL

Amanda Filipacchi. “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given.” The New Yorker, 12 December 2014. Persistent URL

Randy Shandis. “Divine Secrets of the Blah Blah Blah Blah.” The Filthy Critic. Persistent URL


Advertisements

29 thoughts on “Disturbing Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

  1. I find it very interesting and very telling that the author of this blog/essay put a moral value and obligation upon the writer as storyteller. Do we put a moral obligation upon all the storytellers of the past for relating what informed their storytelling down through the ages? You can find a work of fictional deplorable because you don’t like the plot or the characters, you find their behaviors objectionable, etc. You don’t agree with their social interactions or justifications. But it’s as though you are placing some kind of mold and restraint upon authors by saying that the novel perpetuates racism, classism, sexism, and so forth. I don’t think a novel perpetuates those ideas or puts them forth as a desirable model for society and culture any more than I believe that graphic video games are directly responsible for a person’s decision to commit a violent act. Neither Rebecca Wells nor any other of the millions of authors past and present whose fictional works we read are required to instruct us in a better or different way of life, in what we consider to be “correct” modern social mores, or any other personal ethics and civics lessons. That is on us. I thought we had moved past the eighteenth century when it was frowned upon to read novels because they were not “instructive.” I believe you were born into the wrong century.

  2. Did you ever stop and think that the author deliberately wrote the book this way to invoke tumultuous emotion? Is it possible that between 1939-1970 that life in the deep south was actually like that for some people? (sarcasm)…Would it be better of we would white wash all these issues? You mentioned that the book was written in the 1990’s…does that change the past? It’s never a good idea to sanitize history because we’re uncomfortable with it…we must face it for what it was in order to change it. There was a time that schools wanted to ban The Merchant of Venice because of its anti semetic views. If we feel uncomfortable with our history and have the need to sanitize it we may be doomed to repeat it.

  3. “However, the book went beyond the mere inclusion of racism/sexism/homophobia and instead actively perpetuated those bigoted beliefs.” I don’t see any proof of that from the samples of text given in your blog. What I see are examples of the complexity and varying degrees of racism in American society. We all cheer when Vivi throws her breakfast at the snobbish cousin who calls Ginger the “N” word, BUT most (at least 98% see the hypocrisy of when she gets angry when “colored women” tell her no, especially when Melanie refuses to stay to be nanny to her children.) As for that 2%, I don’t think it is the author’s responsibility to hit all the readers over the head with “Berenstain Bear” types of moral lessons after each racist event or thought in the plot. Is my somewhat racist 80 year old father going to read this and be nostalgic for the past, a past that also included racism and sexism? Probably yes. Is he going to see the overt racism in the dining room scene in Atlanta, yes, but maybe not pick it up in other scences, yes, but once again, I don’t think that is the author’s responsibility, nor as the reader would I want to have to endure being lectured.

    I do understand your concern over what I would dubbed “the Paula Deen” types of women that may read this and long for those times or that life, but I think most people today, especially young people, are sophisticated enough to see that the characters commit many awful racist/sexist/homophobic acts (including speech and thought) but the author, I think, evokes that old southern Christian adage: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” We hate what they did in the past but we may still love these people.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t LOVE this book. I actually prefer Little Altars far more and would recommend that book. I first read it in 1998 and decided to reread it now that I am a mom. This time around, however, I read Little Altars first (just this summer) and then reread Divine Secrets, I have a slight positive bias towards the author because in LIttle Altars you do get Willetta’s viewpoint and also the two sons and Shep, the husband. But in Little Altars, Vivi does something that is really awful that is NOT addressed at all in Divine Secrets and that makes me dislike Divine Secrets. I really enjoyed reading the link you had up (Deborah Barker, “The Southern-fried chick flick: postfeminism goes to the movies.” In Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. Edited by Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Persistent URL.) and it really hits the nail on the head in regards to why Divine Secrets appeals to the masses as oppose to Little Altars.

    Thanks!

  4. I don’t think that the author is in any way glorifying racism, etc. It is a portrait of a very real time and a very real culture of the south. Only a southerner can understand the subtleties of the ambivalent feeling strong southern women feel toward themselves and to one another. Vivi and Sidda and the Ya-Yas know they are flawed, but who of us is not. My ancestry is more plebeian than theirs, but I know these women, and I love love love the book.

    Please note that I am an utter left-wing liberal and that I abhor parts of my southern heritage. But I embrace a lot of it too. Racism is not confined to white southerners, nor is mental illness. Look at the book as a sort of snapshot of a particular culture of the south. Look at Tyler Perry’s movies as another snapshot. Can’t you see the similarity?

  5. I agree that Vivi’s character is not a likeable one, and while I understand your visceral reaction to depictions of racism in the mid twentieth century South, I’m confused about why. The fact is, racism was rampant at that time, and it was awful. Vivi and her friends are a product of that, so of course they reflect it. It was a part of the culture. The more it is acknowledged, described and depicted as a shameful time on history, the sooner we can move towards a future without it. Pretending it didn’t happen is downright dangerous. And the abuse part, while distasteful, is part of the narrative of the story. It isn’t pleasant, and it doesn’t make me like Vivi much, but it’s still part of the story. Your review is very well written, and you clearly took a lot of time to write it, but I’m afraid I’m not really understanding how it is that you feel this goes beyond you simply not liking the story because of its subject matter, which is perfectly understandable (not all people like all books) to saying that it is somehow celebrating racism, encouraging abuse and disparaging the church. If anything, I think it’s a cautionary tale about at least the first two. I disagree with you, however, I will say I think your review was an interesting take on the book.

    1. This is absolutely what I was thinking, and was planning on writing a response of my own, but your was put very eloquently. The racism, classism, and sexism is part of the narrative of the story. It’s not saying that it’s right, it’s not trying to make any statement about our culture or its issues, but it is instead a product of the times of the characters. Vivi was born around 1923. I thought the passage of her and Ginger on the train car was a beautiful representation of the ignorant innocence of a child mixed with the views/”understanding” as it were of rich white people at the time. I do agree with Greta that your review was well written, but I believe your understanding of the context of the novel was severely lacking, and that you are attacking the book and the author because you did not consider the depth and complexity of how and what she was trying to represent. It is the story of a family and their individual understandings of the world and the people in it from what they have experienced and seen. I think if this novel is brought into a historical and sociological discussion, it could be a great resource to view how we designed, framed, and perpetuated racism and classism, through a part of our society who knew nothing else.

      1. I posted this review in February 2015, and have been surprised by the frequency of comments it continues to draw. By far the most common critique of my interpretation — and simultaneously, the most common defense of author Rebecca Wells — is that the racism, classism, and sexism in the book are a result of Wells’ desire to accurately capture the historical setting. The ultimate question seems to be: what judgement, if any, does Wells’ cast on the 1950s/1960s American South?

        If she is sympathetic toward the racism, classism, and sexism that her characters perpetuate, then the book should be condemned; but if Wells is merely endeavoring to be accurate in her assessment, then the book is fine.

        My argument, one supported by numerous evidence that I offer throughout the post, is that Wells does not convincingly denounce the society she presents. The fact that you say the book is “not trying to make any statement about our culture or its issues” proves my point. The author has a responsibility to demonstrate that he/she disagrees with the society portrayed. Wells never does this. There is no explicit discussion of why racism is wrong. The answer at the end of the book can essentially be summed up as “That’s just the way some people are.”

        Further, you state that “I think if this novel is brought into a historical and sociological discussion, it could be a great resource to view how we designed, framed, and perpetuated racism and classism, through a part of our society who knew nothing else.” The problem is that the book was published in 1996; it is not a product of the 1950s/1960s, but rather offers an interpretation of that era. It’s not an original source and cannot be treated as a purely historic document.

        Many works of literature, most notably novels and films, engage with problematic social issues in a historical setting. Many of them I find convincing; that is, I do not believe that the writers and directors are seeking to perpetuate the issues they portray. That is not the case with “Divine Secrets.”

  6. I have to disagree with you 100%. This book takes place in 1939 to 1970 in Louisiana and is about white high class women. Honestly you didn’t expect rascism, sexism, homophobia and all the other topics you listed? It stays true to that particular society during that timeline. The more we come to terms with it now the better off we will be.

    1. It’s not that I didn’t expect those topics/themes to be part of the book; a strong argument can be made that books about those eras must include those elements in order to be historically accurate. However, the book went beyond the mere inclusion of racism/sexism/homophobia and instead actively perpetuated those bigoted beliefs. It’s an important distinction that must be made.

  7. Your assessment of Vivi’s character is pretty out of touch. Mental health is a serious issue and she clearly had all of the symptoms.

    1. It goes without saying that mental illness is a serious issue — there’s no argument to be had there. However, I believe that certain norms, practices, and bigoted beliefs can also contribute to the development of depression and other forms of suffering. It’s worth criticizing the culture that gives rise to mental issues, too. Vivi was both the product and embodiment of a culture that was unhealthy in myriad ways.

  8. Your review was very interesting. I’ve read the book and seen the movie and loved them both. As a black female from the south, born and Christened catholic, mother of two with mental health issues I think you missed what the book was about. But I’m guessing it’s probably based on your perspective. Vivi was screwed up and had mental issues. And there wasn’t supposed to be any major black characters because that’s not who the book was about. The author treated them like the world treated them during that time period.

    1. Hello, and thank you for sharing your thoughts! Of course, I realize that it’s possible for different people to have varying reactions to a book/film/song/etc., but the majority of the reviews of “Divine Secrets” that I ran across were saccharine and overwhelmingly positive, so I wanted to add my critical perspective to the mix. I think it’s important to remember that the book had a split 1960s/1990s setting, and was itself published in 1996. Many films and novels have been released that depict historical settings and contexts while remaining critical of the social mores of the day. I don’t think that replication, or deliberately invoking feelings of nostalgia, are responsible ways to treat eras characterized by racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, or any other myriad social issues. I am curious to know whether you have encountered other books and films that have also resonated with your perspective. If so, I would appreciate hearing about them, as I wouldn’t expect “Divine Secrets” to be an exemplar in any category.

  9. I found this review accidentally-and I’m so glad I did. I read DSYS a few years ago, and I had only heard good reviews, but something about it always bothered me. I felt somewhat repulsed by it, and now I see I’m not alone.

    1. Hi Nancy,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment! I’m glad to hear that my review of DSYS resonated with you. I thought I was going crazy when I was reading the book – indeed, I did go a little crazy! – and getting comments on this post has, in turn, made me feel less alone as well.
      And as a side note, welcome to Literary Vittles! I have several other highly critical book reviews on this blog, including one of Ian McEwan’s much-lauded “Atonement.” I hope to see a comment from you again! Cheers.

  10. Hey Alina, just thought I’d stick my head in and say that I think you’re book reviews are ridiculously good. Reading them makes me feel like an idiot! If you ever feel like reviewing a film can I have first dibs on having it on my blog? ☺

    1. Hey hey! Thanks for checking in! I’m still alive, by the way. Just trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing in the next six months/next year/next 3-5 years. New Zealand vs. United States deliberations occupy most of my thoughts, unfortunately, which is why I’ve regressed to a “blogging lite” status.
      I would be honored to review a film on Screenkicker, though I’ll need help with the SQI!! That is, if I ever manage to see a recent release again! Movies take a long time to arrive in New Zealand, and they’re usually not the ones I’m very interested in (Furious 7? No thanks). Another tick in the “America” column…
      Conversely, if you ever read a book that you think is worth talking about, please consider sharing your witty thoughts on Literary Vittles! Cheers.

  11. I haven’t read it and I guess I’m not surprised by what you’ve written here today, just sad that it still needs to be said.

    1. I know this review is twice the length of most of the reviews I write, but I just had to get it all out there, I guess. I suppose publishing this massive thing was cathartic, in a way. It just makes me sad that this book was so popular.

  12. Alina, once again well written and honest review, and I love the fact that you were not afraid to express your distaste for the book. I have heard of the book, and never had interest to read it. From this review, I don’t think it is a book for me as well.

    1. Thank you, and thank you for reading it! Once I hit 3,000 words, I thought, “Well, might as well go ahead and say everything that’s on my mind, even if it ends up being the longest book review I’ve ever posted.”
      I was trying to think of books that depict the South in an honest, critical way, but I can’t really think of any apart from “To Kill a Mockingbird” (which is also by a white woman). The TV show “True Detective” does a really good job showing some of the darker aspects of Southern life and culture, though.

  13. I’ve never read the book, but I enjoyed this article a lot, thanks for all the work you put into it. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the ‘white saviour narrative’ particularly in relation to the Oscars snub for ‘Selma’ so this is really timely. It doesn’t sound like a book for me.

    1. Oh gosh, I didn’t realize that’s why ‘Selma’ was considered controversial. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll be sure to avoid it now. (I remember that “12 Years a Slave,” while still a very good film, had the same problem when Brad Pitt swooped in and declared why slavery was wrong).
      And thanks for reading the entire review, haha. It’s so long that I didn’t think anyone would take the time!

      1. No Alina, Selma is considered the complete opposite – there is no white saviour in it – and the suggestion is that the (mostly white) Oscar voters didn’t like that. So maybe one to watch!

Share your thoughts below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s