Author: Rebecca Wells
Details: (c) 1996 Rebecca Wells; Pub Harper Perennial 1997; ISBN 0-06-092833-6
Verdict: Divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood is moving and original, if rather sentimental.
Reasons for reading it: I had heard a lot of talk about it and it sounded like the kind of book I would either love or hate, and I was intrigued.
How it came into my hands: Passed on from the anglophone community's informal book circulation.
Divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood actually managed to be annoying and impresive simultaneously. It has a lot of the flaws of standard chicklit, flaws I am admittedly tolerant of if the writing is decent. And if a book is going to be soppy, being soppy about true friendship grabs me a lot more favourably than the more standard soppiness about true love. At the same time, the prose is really excellent, the setting is beautifully evoked, and the characterization is top-notch.
The thing that's really outstanding about it is the portrayal of Vivi. DSotYYS pulls off something which is near-impossible, creating a sympathetic but not excusing portrait of an abusive mother. What's more, Vivi is rich blonde, ultra-feminine, hailing from the US South, and even rather racist, and yet she's a human being, not an aunt sally. The depth of that characterization, and the degree of moral complexity, are breathtakingly impressive.
Sidda's storyline is rather weaker; it's not far off the done-to-death chicklit plot of a successful professional woman suddenly realizing that what really matters is true love, not worldly success, and conveniently getting married to an implausibly perfect man. There's even the obligatory Gay Best Friend. But I'm prepared to put up with that since it provides the frame for the Vivi story, and the portrayal of Sidda's tentative reconciliation with the mother who mistreated her is very well done, with a realism that really makes up for the soppiness of the romantic relationship.
When the book is taking directly about race it's rather cringey. But at least it's not pretending that the world of privileged white Southerners between the wars was a perfect paradise untouched by the ugly reality of the racist underpinnings of that society.
I think it's a strongly feminist piece, but in a really subtle way, because it's dealing with stuff that feminism usually disowns, like femininity and women who are not politically enlightened. And rather than using strident polemic or high-flown theory, it's subverting the most girly of novelistic conventions. It still manages to be good chicklit in spite of the politics and the dark aspects.