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.


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.

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. 


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

Frustratingly Overwrought: Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I am often flummoxed by the critical praise and general adoration that certain novels receive. Atonement has been added to that list.

After hearing many good things about Ian McEwan’s novels over the years, I have unfortunately found myself among those who find his writing unimpressive, even offensive. He is the subject of much scholarly analysis, which simultaneously baffles and fails to surprise me, given the emulative and lightly modernist style in which he writes. What he lacks in originality, he overcompensates for with florid descriptions, impressionistic character sketches, and emotional tropes descended from the Victorian age. Most irritating, however, is the pomposity layered into the narrative, which allows McEwan to indulge in self-reflection time and time again without making himself an actual character in the story.

Atonement - book cover

In case you are not familiar with either the book or movie version of Atonement, the story begins on a languid English estate, home to the wealthy but socially inept Tallis family. Cecilia Tallis is a beautiful and restless Cambridge graduate nurturing a blooming infatuation with Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son. Briony, Cecilia’s younger sister, is a precocious and utterly unbelievable 13-year-old who unfortunately witnesses Cecilia and Robbie having sex in the library. She also reads a note intended for Cecilia in which Robbie infamously uses the word c***. Briony folds these two events together and concludes that Robbie is some kind of sexual deviant, a wicked man with a violent infatuation with her sister. When Briony’s cousin, Lola, is raped later that evening, Briony, eager to confirm the shocking tale playing out in her head, convinces herself — and Lola to some extent — that the perpetrator was Robbie. She all too happily condemns Robbie in front of the police and her family, and Robbie is taken away to prison while the actual rapist, wealthy friend of the family Paul Marshall, gets away with his crime.

McEwan’s depiction of a foolish 13-year-old girl is too outrageous to be believable. Briony is a trifecta of self-absorption, hubris, and immaturity, and I find it hard to believe that even a highly sheltered 13-year-old girl from an upper-class English family would behave the way she did — and, furthermore, that she could misunderstand sex and affection so badly. The story would be more palatable if Briony were, say, eight at the beginning of the novel. But that is what happens, sometimes, when a middle-aged writer of the opposite gender tries to write from a perspective he knows nothing about.

Just as Briony, the 13-year-old criminal, is melodramatically hell-bent on condemning Robbie Turner, so, too, is Cecilia’s behavior inexplicable. When the police arrive at the house and start asking questions, Cecilia is too overcome to defend the man she loves:

Where was Cecilia? She hovered on the peripheries, speaking to no one, always smoking… At other times she twisted a handkerchief in her hand as she paced the hallway…Cecilia’s eyes were bloodshot. While others stood murmuring in groups, she moved restlessly up and down the room. (163-164)

Ever the condescending depicter of women, McEwan assumes that when confronted by such a terrible accusation about her lover, Cecilia would be utterly incapable of doing anything productive. Meanwhile, Lola, the 15-year-old victim of the rape, is forgotten in the intervening 100+ pages, as Briony (a.k.a., McEwan’s terribly imagined adolescent female alter-ego) is more concerned about the fate of the falsely accused.

Atonement - Emily's migraine

These developments comprise the first third of the book, or 175 pages. Why it takes McEwan so long to run through this series of events continues to elude me. There are innumerable unnecessary asides, such as the lengthy paragraphs McEwan devotes to describing a vase (p. 21-23), as well as vaguely interesting character descriptions that fail to advance the story in any meaningful way. One chapter is devoted entirely to Emily Tallis, Briony’s mother, and her attempts to avoid a migraine while lying on the bed. Ironically, the chapter gave me a headache.

It may seem whiny to complain about McEwan’s overly descriptive prose — after all, many great novels feature a verbose narrator — but in the case of Atonement, the pseudo-modernist style seems like nothing more than cheap imitation. Atonement never delves fully into modernist territory. Its attempts at stream-of-consciousness are halfhearted; it emphasizes the idea of psychology, but undermines all progress with a strong vein of moral absolution; it uses WWII as a convenient setting, but fails to analyze how the war impacted British society as a whole.

I found it easier to get through parts two and three of the novel, largely in part because the settings — a WWII battlefield and hospital, respectively — involved enough gory details to offset the saccharine story. The novel’s fundamental issues, however, still frequently found expression. In a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness paragraph, for example, Robbie ponders the meaning of what has happened to him and comes to the following conclusion:

Waiting. Simply one person doing nothing, over time, while another approached. Waiting was a heavy word. He felt it pressing down, heavy as a greatcoat… Briony would change her evidence, she would rewrite the past so that the guilty became the innocent. But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. (246)

These trite aphorisms, dressed up in imitative scholarly language, are peppered throughout the novel. Cheap statements of truth always irritate me regardless of context, but I feel they are especially egregious considering the high praise Atonement has received. They are symptomatic of McEwan’s high self-regard, which manifests itself in a letter Briony receives from a notable magazine editor. Briony still nurses dreams of becoming a writer — and, indeed, Atonement itself is supposed to be her creation — and the indulgent letter outlines her early talent.

We found ‘Two Figures by a Fountain’ arresting enough to read with dedicated attention. I do not say this lightly. We cast aside a great deal of material, some of it by writers of reputation…. Though we cannot offer to publish any part of it, we thought you should know that in this quarter there are others as well as myself who would take an interest in what you might write in the future. We are not complacent about the average age of our contributors and are keen to publish promising young writers. We would like to see whatever you do, especially if you were to write a short story or two. (294)

The letter arrives at an odd juncture in the text — within 50 pages of the end of the novel — and reads like a self-affirming argument in favor of McEwan’s nascent writing style. McEwan began his career, after all, by publishing two collections of short stories, and the letter, though full of praise, occasionally reprimands Briony for focusing too much on irrelevant, flowery descriptions. It is an indulgent, and completely unnecessary inclusion considering that it fails to advance the plot in any way. It is yet another psychological aside, a chance for McEwan to examine Briony and, by extension, himself. I think it is worth mentioning that I found James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from which Ian McEwan drew inspiration, completely insufferable. The difference between James Joyce and Ian McEwan, though, is the difference between a controversial trailblazer and a capitalizing parroter.

When McEwan finally deigns to mention Lola, the 15-year-old rape victim, we find out that she is engaged to her rapist, Paul Marshall. Briony attends their wedding in shock, and later, as an old woman, condemns Lola for helping to “cover up” the crime.

As for Lola–my high-living, chain-smoking cousin–here she was, still as lean and fit as a racing dog, and still faithful. Who would have dreamed it? …She wore a sable coat and a scarlet wide-brimmed fedora. Bold rather than vulgar. Near on eighty years old, and still wearing high heels… She was heavy on the makeup, quite garish around the mouth and liberal with the smoothing cream and powder… I thought there was a touch of the stage villain here — the gaunt figure, the black coat, the lurid lips. A cigarette holder, a lapdog tucked under one arm and she could have been Cruella De Vil. (337-338)

Is it criminal not to indict the person who sexually assaulted you? McEwan seems to think so. Did Lola deserve to be criminalized in such a blatant way, with most of the evidence against her derived from her physical appearance? Should a 15-year-old rape victim be eternally damned for latching onto her cousin’s story, and for covering up her embarrassment and shame by marrying the very person who violated her? It falls disturbingly close to rape apologism. Perhaps Briony feels that she deserves forgiveness because she has ardently wished for and imagined it, while Lola wears obnoxious lipstick and shows no signs of guilt. Briony considers herself Lola’s superior because she willingly enrolled herself in a humbling nurses’ training program and spent decades revising the novel that would expose the entire situation. It all feels a bit too self-righteous.

What makes the novel most memorable, though, is the shocking revelation on the penultimate page. It turns out that Briony took extensive liberties with the re-telling of the story; instead of living happily ever after, affirming the importance of true love in the midst of war, Cecilia and Robbie were not reunited as Briony claims. Instead, both of them perished in 1940. Not only is this a cheap parlor trick, a manipulative tear-jerking device shoved in at the last minute to ensure that the novel would make a lasting impression on its readers, but it undercuts the novel’s core premise: that true love is pure, and the only thing that makes life worth living. Twenty pages prior, at the “real” end of the novel, Briony asserts that Cecilia and Robbie’s love was a sacred thing, a treasure:

[Briony] was sad to leave her sister. It was her sister she missed — or more precisely, it was her sister with Robbie. Their love. Neither Briony nor the war had destroyed it. This was what soothed her as she sank deeper under the city. (329-330)

Except, Briony did destroy their love, by falsely identifying Robbie as a rapist and refusing to repent even though she knew that the accusation was born out of a flight of fancy, not reality. The war did destroy Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship; Robbie died died from his wounds while waiting to be evacuated from France, and Cecilia was killed by one of the many bombs dropped on London. Briony/McEwan argues that “…the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love” (350). The core argument about love rests on a series of events that never actually took place. Granting yourself forgiveness by inventing an untrue, alternative reality is ultimately a hollow act, and Briony acknowledges this:

The problem [is] this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. (351)

What, then, is the point? If a novelist, who controls all of the parameters in his or her invented universe, cannot legitimately grant himself or herself forgiveness, then are we to understand that the act of invention is intended as a penance? Why is Briony so adamant about revealing the truth even though she has altered that truth in order to assuage her guilt? It’s a beguilingly Christian premise: the argument that one must constantly strive to achieve impossible God-like perfection is eerily similar to Briony’s assertion that she can redeem herself through lifetime of penance for a deed she can never undo. Comparing yourself to an omnipotent divinity, and using this as your excuse for granting yourself forgiveness, does not an honest author make.

In sum, with its pompous attitude, dubious characterization, florid prose, inexplicable plot development, gratuitous asides, and self-indulgent redemption, Atonement really is something unique.  It contains all the ingredients of a successful novel, with its doomed romance, exploitative wartime setting, and upper-class affectations. In other words, heed it as a warning of what can happen if you mix together classism, sexism, and a bloatedly celebrated writer.

Overall rating: 2/5 stars

Photos by G. 

“Is this a joke?” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”

The back cover of the book carries endorsements from no less than Madonna and Will Smith, the latter of whom identifies it as “One of my favorite books.” Gee, thanks, Will Smith. I wouldn’t have read it without your blessing.

The Alchemist

Do you remember the title of J.K. Rowling’s first book as it was published in the U.K., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Do you also remember that magic isn’t real? Ok, good. Just checking. Because the Philosopher’s Stone is a real thing in The Alchemist, as is the ability to transform lead into gold, as is the ability of people to communicate with each other and with the elements through The Universal Language of the World. Oh, I forgot to add that all of the knowledge of the world is inscribed on the Emerald Tablet. Yeah.

I wish I were exaggerating, but this book is nothing but trite aphorisms from beginning to end. The basic premise is that a young boy from Andalusia, Spain isn’t fulfilling his destiny by being a humble shepherd of sheep. Thankfully, a king wearing a gold breastplate intervenes and tells him to believe a recent dream he’s had about finding treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt. Boy decides to sell his sheep and travel to Tangier, where someone steals all his money but then he earns it back because he has a knack for selling crystal! Then he falls instantly in love with a “woman of the desert” after traveling via camel to an oasis in the middle of the desert! Then he meets the famous alchemist who refuses to teach him how to change lead into gold, but it’s ok because he insists that the boy listen to his heart! HE DOES AND THEN HIS HEART LEADS HIM TO THE TREASURE!!! It is written! It is a miracle!

It’s narcissistic, delusional, simplistic, and self-affirming, which explains why it’s sold 65 million copies. Let me pull a few choice examples:

The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there. (p. 77)

It’s Slumdog Millionaire all over again! Just as the universe conspired to make Jamal win one million rupees on a game show, so did the universe ensure that the shepherd boy from Andalusia would find a treasure chest filled with gold coins.

We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand. (p. 80)

Everything happens for a reason. We must not question tragedy because it is written into the history of the world. Poor people are poor because it is their destiny. Rich men become rich because they had the wisdom to listen to the omens and claim the treasure that was destined to be theirs. Of COURSE! How could you possibly misinterpret something so simple?

‘I had to test your courage, the stranger said. ‘Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of the World.’ The boy was surprised. The stranger was speaking of things that very few people knew about.’ (p. 117)

This book works for the same reason that horoscopes work, a little something known as the Forer, or, colloquially, the Barnum Effect after the Ringling Bros. circus. Basically, if you make something vague and profound enough, everyone will see themselves reflected in it. Give it a try. Read a horoscope that doesn’t belong to your star sign and see if it still applies to your life (hint: it will!). An article from Psychology Today explains why the Barnum Effect is so seductive:

The second reason people fall for the Barnum effect applies more to predictions about the future, the ones we find in fortune cookies and horoscopes. These provide a comforting, if not always reassuring, sense of control over the unknown. In our constant struggle to see into the unknown, these vapid pronouncements give us a handle with which we can open the door.  No matter that it’s not going to be a very clear view, nor that if we were keeping records, we’d realize that these prognostications were completely off-base. (emphasis added)

Celebrities love The Alchemist because it justifies their fame. They were destined to be wealthy and admired — the very stars in the sky prove this. Everyone else loves The Alchemist because it’s endlessly forgiving. It’s hard work listening to The Universal Language/your intuition/God/wise old men with gold breastplates, but as long as you try to follow your destiny, that’s all that can be expected of you. Something go wrong? It’s just a bump in the path to your true realization.

All of this new-age nonsense aside, let’s take one last moment to consider how sexist this book is. You remember how I said the shepherd boy fell instantly in love with a woman of the desert that he met at an oasis? Well, she’s a strong woman of the desert, so she doesn’t mind waiting while he goes off to pursue his destiny. Women of the desert are strong and are capable of waiting faithfully for their men to return.

‘You’ll remember that she never asked you to stay, because a woman of the desert knows that she must await her man.’ (p. 126)

‘I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals and the water of the desert.’ (p. 103)

“I also have Fatima. She is a treasure greater than anything else I have won.” (p. 121)

Oh, right. Thanks for reminding us, Paulo Coehlo, that women are possessions just like treasure, horses, or houses. They are prizes to be won by men brave enough to pursue their destinies. Remember: in Coelho’s world, it’s only the men who have destinies. Women just wait around, hoping to be picked up like so many gold coins.

I’ll tell you what, though. This book was good for many solid laughs. I read sections out loud to Greg, and each time, he’d ask: “Is this a joke?” Sadly, most people don’t seem to realize that’s exactly what this book is. It also means that I won’t make the mistake of reading another book by Coehlo, ever again.

Overall rating: 1/5 stars