What a title. It scared me a little at first because I thought it would be about some kind of witches’ coven. Instead, behind one of the catchiest titles I’ve ever heard, is a story about mothers and daughters and about friendship and love.
The story wastes no time in getting to the inciting incident. Right on the third page we learn that Siddalee Walker, a theatre director, has spilled her soul to a New York Times reporter who writes that Vivi Abbott Walker, her mother, was a tap-dancing child abuser. Ouch. Vivi is so hurt she refuses to speak to Sidda for months. But the fact that one time Vivi did beat all her children, with her eldest daughter Sidda taking the brunt of the belt buckle, will not go away. Sidda has spent her whole life trying to make sense of this event and of her mother’s subsequent lengthy absence. However, thanks to the intervention of her three best friends, who with her compose the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Vivi agrees to send her daughter a scrapbook she calls her Divine Secrets, and which Siddalee has asked for to help her prepare for directing a play about women and friendship.
So, in a cabin in the Northwest a few hours from Seattle, far from the Louisiana of her childhood, and far from her fiancé Connor (she’s just put her wedding plans on hold, so burdened is she by her relationship with her mother), Siddalee begins to go through the pages of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, piecing together her mother’s story from photos, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia (or Ya-Ya-rabilia).
I was blindsided by this novel. I started reading it on the recommendation of an aunt who sent me a list of all the titles her book club had read since 2002 and this was the first on the list. Thinking it was about witches or something, I was not prepared for a saga that would make me sit with the pain of my own mother-wound. My relationship with my mother has never been easy and deep feelings tried to surface during my reading. Just as Viviane is so named for her love of life and her sparkling personality, people who knew my mother before her retreat from the world described her as “vivacious”. I could relate to Sidda feeling confused and abandoned by her mother, being on high alert to the changeability of her mother’s moods, wanting answers. As I read the last few pages, as delighted as I was by the happy ending, I asked myself, will a loving relationship ever be possible with my mother? Does she love me underneath it all like Vivi loves Sidda? Will I understand one day? This is why we need great stories—to help us make sense of our own.
I love how Rebecca Wells has structured this novel. While the story technically spans only March to October, 1993, Wells takes us as far back as the thirties, shifting from Sidda’s perspective to Vivi’s. One technique take-away for me is how she’ll start a chapter with Sidda looking at a letter, photo, newspaper article or some other artifact and use it to catapult us into the past as Vivi’s sees it, living a wild Ya-Ya romp or a tragic moment. Another way Wells moves the story forward is through letters woven into the narrative from Vivi, Caro, Necie, and Teensy (the Ya-Yas) to each other and also between Sidda and Vivi, among others. It’s a great way to change the pace of the novel.
Divine Secrets has shown me you don’t have to stick to one narrator, or even one literary style within a novel. Everyone can have their say without distracting the reader from the main storyline. This is also a book to refer to for how to write lively dialogue, to give each character a distinct voice. Rebecca Wells has brought the Southern accents to life without overdoing it. In other passages, her writing is poetic, liquid, as she personifies the moon looking down on people or as Siddalee reflects on her mother-wound. “The preverbal knowledge, the stories told without words, flowing like blood, like rich oxygen, into the placenta of the baby girl as she grows in dark containment.”
In fact, Divine Secrets is vivid throughout. You can smell the flowers and perfumes, taste the food and drink, you can picture people’s outfits, see their cars, feel the cool water of Spring Creek or the drenching summer humidity, hear their laughter… You’re not just reading, you’re actually in the South or the Northwest for the hours you’re immersed in the story.
In one of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, some characters are dicussing which books make them hungry. If this book had been written then, I’m sure it would have been on their list. Everything from a sensual description of peanut butter and bananas to the crayfish étouffé Vivi makes to the various Cajun feasts make me seriously consider subscribing to Southern Living.
My one quibble with the novel is that the Cajun French is not always accurate. Écouté should be écoutez; ma petite chou should be mon petit chou, even referring to a female. Could an editor not have double-checked this?
And one other thing did make my evangelical soul squirm—the story’s intensely Catholic flavour sprinkled with earth worship. Characters are constantly praying to Mary or the saints, Jesus is not the gospel-preaching rabbi of the New Testament, but Baby Jesus, less powerful than his mother. Catholicism is used as a weapon by Vivi’s mother who tries to knock the popularity and joie de vivre out of her daughter by sending her to a strict convent boarding school. At key moments, the moon is a spiritual being shining down love first on the Ya-Yas, then on Sidda. But, though Vivi does love to consult her ouija board, at least it isn’t about witches as I first thought, right? The spiritual figures are only silent onlookers, leaving the main characters to work out their own redemption.
They say there are really only two story lines: Stranger Comes to Town or Man Goes on a Journey. Divine Secrets is definitely Man Goes on a Journey, as Sidda travels through the pages of the scrapbook to try to understand, and in understanding, to forgive, to heal.