Book Review – Divine Secrets

Viewspaper Internship Assignment – Article # One

Topic: Write a Book Review

Book title: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Book Author: Rebecca Wells

Publisher: Harper Perennial, New York, 1996


If ever there was a book, which would justly shoo away the much exaggerated ways and lives of the country people in America, and bring a more holistic, humane view to their existence, it would be this book. Rebecca Wells has not been around as an author for very long, her debut novel Little Altars Everywhere having hit the market a little while before this brilliant sequel came to print in ’96, but she did establish her hold on her readers’ hearts with as much deliberation and gusto as would any good writer worth their salt. Divine Secrets… is the kind of book that one can read on a bus or train journey, looking out at the hills and plains and imagining the scenes from the Bayou and the Louisiana countryside emerge and fade away as one turns page after page. It is also the kind of book one can begin their morning with, as if waking from a dream and then not quite letting go of it, and one can fall asleep to it too, as if returning to a world where everything is, even if with its own mayhems and storms, just a little bit better for wear. Set in an imaginary plantation called Pecan Grove in Louisiana, in the early 90s, the story of a few women and their previous and next generations fills the 350 odd pages of this fulfilling book. There is Vivianne Walker (Vivi) and her daughter Siddalee (Sidda), Vivi’s childhood friends Necie, Caro and Teensy and of course, the men who play a variety of roles in their lives and in the book and remain in the margins as the women whirl about and claim the main stage. Essentially about women, womanhood and the various relationships that women have in a lifetime, this story is one with so many characters, so many nuanced little idiosyncrasies and so many, many rivers and rivulets of emotions and feelings, responses and silences, that one cannot help but get involved in their lives, from whomever’s perspective.

Genre and Characters

This work of fiction is typical to its genre in many ways and a departure in many others. For instance, there is the expected in medias res beginning of the story, even from the prologue which does not serve as the introduction to any one thing, but instead picks up an odd, less-than-ordinary moment to introduce a memory, which will later be relocated in the flashbacks of Sidda’s childhood – a major thread in the storyline. However, unlike the usual hierarchy of characters, even within a single gender, which such fictional stories contain (examples: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Tara Road by Maeve Binchy, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf et cetera), in Divine Secrets…. one does not find the importance of sub-plots being assigned to a major or minor character in the same way, while not taking due importance away from anyone when they might need it. There are episodes totally centred around Vivi and some around Sidda, in their consciences or memories, and then there are chapters devoted to lush description of easy summers and deep winters in ‘ole Loosiana’, which read like a home movie from an old holiday season. The story veers off purposefully and then finds its way back every time, every time with something richer to look back upon.

Plots and narrative technique

Divine Secrets… may be a book about many but it is the story about one thing alone – being a woman. The story revolves around the friendships and hardships faced by Sidda’s mother Vivi and her three best friends who have come to form a divine sisterhood with sacred rituals and secret practices and a very rich history with their own wars and battles, victories and spells, mythologies and deities that they constantly evoke and pray to. They even have nicknames that symbolize the special qualities that each of the ‘sisters’ possess. And growing up close together, these four girls enter womanhood, experience love, separation, death, childbirth, marriage and all other responsibilities of the 90s woman while standing by one another through thick and thin. However, Wells chooses to take the long route to describe the main theme of the book by detouring to the next generation and looking at the parents’ lives from the slightly crooked, slightly misguided and always expectant eyes of the beloved children. Through this perspective, one gets to learn of Sidda’s girlhood, of her youth and her relationship with her mother and her mother’s sister-like best friends. To put it straight, it is a relationship of mixed colours, a myriad range of emotions and thick bonds. And such bonds cannot be explained through words; something that Wells realizes only too well and lets the reader feel what they may feel as she spins around webs and weaves of reminiscing and promises. While Vivi and Sidda and sometimes even Necie, Caro and Teensy try to achieve/arrive at some semblance of normalcy in their lives, the reader is given free rein to love or hate or sympathise or judge, whichever character they like, only to alter their perspective moments later when something unexpected happens or, more likely, when they realize that they may have judged too soon. Even the less explained relationship of Sidda with her father is given space to develop as she sits on the porch with him, reflecting on her mother’s ways and contemplating her decision to marry her fiancé Connor McGill, whom she had given an ambiguous goodbye a few days before she was literally abducted by her mother’s troupe and brought back to Pecan Grove. All in all, one can claim that the plotline of this book is not only non-linear and very much in touch with the memory structure of a woman as explained by Julia Kristeva in one of her seminal essays on feminism and time, but it is also a very powerful account of the difficulties of life from many different perspectives, so different and correct in their own rights that one has to acknowledge each one, if not choose one over the other.

Impact and opinions

I have personally been a fan of women’s fiction since childhood, and I have enjoyed reading a range of female-narrated novels on a variety of topics. Rebecca Wells’ books then fall into place where there is a requirement for a true exploration of the bond of mother and daughter, husband and wife, friend and confidant and lover and soul mate, not from some unrealistic romantic notion of white clouds and red roses but from a very tangible source of life, in the backwaters of the Louisiana countryside, with women and men who work and get dirty and fight and love and drink and eat and mess up and get straight again. In such stories, one does not need to get to the end of the book to enjoy the moral, because it keeps popping its non-glorified head up in random places, just to make the reader realize that they are a part of this, whatever this is. And that is why Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a book every girl should read and every mother should give to her daughter as a present to cherish.

Karishma Gaur