Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
By Rebecca Wells
Harpercollins, 1996

Reviewed by Kate McGinnity

In her second novel, Rebecca Wells takes us back in time to a strongly bonded group of Southern women whose escapades and unconditional love for one another charm us and touch our hearts. The close-knit sisterhood ("Ya-Yas") of Vivi Walker and friends begins in high school in 1930s Louisiana and continues through adulthood, child-rearing days, and twilight years. But it is Vivi's 1990s adult daughter Siddalee who sets the novel in motion with her decision to write a play based on her mother's Ya-Ya past.

Siddalee requests the treasured scrapbook ("Divine Secrets") her mother has been keeping for years, thus setting the stage for our glimpses into Vivi's journals and letters. While Siddalee searches for a script in the pages of memories, we are treated to images of another time, marked by brightly colored toenail polish, cigarettes and Bloody Marys, convertible cars crammed with kids, and summers at the lake. A highlight is an extended sequence detailing the excitement and glamour leading up to the Atlanta, Georgia premiere of Gone With the Wind in December, 1939.

Wells is a wonderful storyteller, and easily weaves back and forth between Ya-Ya history and present time. Many of the novel's memories are double-edged: we have a window into Siddalee coming to terms with the pain of her childhood and the challenging relationship with her mother. The real achievement here is the ability to tell this story without an excess of judgment or moralizing. Like Mary Karr's extraordinary memoir, The Liars' Club, Wells's novel shows us the American family far beyond the taint of mere dysfunction as its members struggle through abuse and mental illness. We come to love these survivors, and to realize that even the most extreme human behavior is still very human and very much a part of our collective 20th century experience. With the exception of a somewhat predictable ending, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a captivating book: mostly delightful, sometimes wrenching, but always engaging.


From Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
I forgot to tell you about the theater! The Hollywood people made it so the front of the Loew's Grand looks exactly like the front of Tara. And there somehow was a whole lawn they grew across Peachtree Street for all the stars to walk on. They walked on this new grass the whole day. Mr. Gable was so chivalrous, Necie. He said exactly what I would have wanted him to say. He said that the night wasn't his night but that the night belonged to Miss Mitchell. Oh, that really showed me what Mr. Gable is made of. That made me fall in love with him to the point that I will just never get over it. [p. 102]

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Kate McGinnity is an autism consultant and Trager practitioner living in Cambridge, Wisconsin with her husband, Bob Wake, and their son August.

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