American Literature Month: ‘Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ by Rebecca Wells ***

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was recommended to me way back in the dark days of Goodreads, and again, it is one which I am only just getting around to.  It crossed over quite nicely into American Literature Month, set as it is in Louisiana, and as I already had a copy on my bookshelf, I thought that I would incorporate it into the project.

A number one bestseller in the United States, Divine Secrets… was published in 1996.  It is a companion volume to Wells’ debut novel, Little Altars Everywhere.  The Daily Telegraph‘s wonderful (albeit rather exaggerated) description of the book drew me to it: ‘Take every heat-laden bestseller from the Old South there has ever been, from Gone With the Wind on.  Add a dash of Tennessee Williams and toss at full moon in the cocktail-shaker of sisterhood’.

The premise of the novel is so interesting; Vivi Abbott Walker (‘Ya-Ya extraordinaire – part Scarlett, part Katharine Hepburn, part Tallulah’) disowns her eldest daughter Siddalee when she describes her as ‘a tap-dancing child abuser’ in a national newspaper.  Divine Secrets… begins on Labor Day 1959, at the Pecan Grove Plantation ‘in the hot heart of Louisiana’, and tells the simultaneous stories of forty-year-old Sidda and her mother.

Its blurb goes on to describe the rest of the plot: “Devastated, Sidda begs forgiveness, and postpones her upcoming wedding. All looks bleak until the Ya-Yas step in and convince Vivi to send Sidda a scrapbook of their girlhood mementos, called “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” As Sidda struggles to analyze her mother, she comes face to face with the tangled beauty of imperfect love, and the fact that forgiveness, more than understanding, is often what the heart longs for.”

The real strength of the novel is the way in which it has been well historically situated; it contains music, period films and film stars, and elements of racial segregation – families happily using black nurses but scorning them all the same, for instance.  Wells’ approach to the book does have faults as far as I am concerned, however; it is too simplistic in its telling for the most part, and rather than writing a memorable, thought-provoking novel set during some of the most tumultuous periods of American history, it comes across as little more than chunky chick-lit.  It is a long novel (my copy ran to around 570 pages), but its substance (or lack thereof, in places) makes it easy to get through.  She uses three narrative perspectives – Sidda’s and an omniscient third person narrator, as well as letters from the points of view of other characters, which makes it more well-rounded – but I could not help but feel that more could have been made of it.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with Divine Secrets…, a novel which is entertaining enough, and which does get better as it goes on, I would advise you to go and read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help instead.  Stockett uses a lot of the same narrative techniques and incorporates racial discrimination into her debut novel, but she truly does it in breathtaking style.  If you are looking for something relatively light to read on the beach this summer, however, then this may well be perfect.

Purchase from The Book Depository


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