In the past couple of years, Rebecca Wells’s novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood won much attention in the limelight: the novel topped the New York Times bestseller list for many weeks, and its movie adaptation was released with mixed reviews last summer. Despite all of its popularity and economic success, however, the work has suffered harsh criticism as well. Scorned by men and women alike as sentimental chick pulp, the book garners as many scoffers as devoted fans. Such a radically bipolar reaction to any one single work is both uncommon and puzzling; a closer look at this split suggests that there may be more to its appeal and, relatedly, more complex reasons for its disapproval than meets the eye.
It is tempting to dismiss the book’s simultaneously attractive and repulsive power with a simple male versus female dichotomy or even a high literature versus popular fiction distinction. For all of the criticisms it has received for its sappy tone and its exclusively female appeal, however, the strengths and weaknesses of this book are more intricate than the average novel about “female bonding.” For one, the book does not resort to the blanket demonization of males to earn the sympathy of its female readers. All too easily, writers earn a place in readers’ trust and pocketbooks by catering to what they want to hear rather than daring to convince them beyond their existing convictions. All too easily, books earn their endearment by creating a shared confidence with the reader at the expense of manufacturing a perceived alienation from other human beings.
Wells, however, creates a more full and believable portrait of the lives of these women by showing the diverse gamut of distinct personalities that both women and men can possess. At first glance, the story plot appears to be an old tale in its genre – an estranged motherdaughter relationship leads to an existential crisis on the daughter’s part, the daughter searches for answers to her own identity by looking into her mother’s past, the mother seeks resolution for what seems to be a failure in proper childrearing, both come to condone one another’s shortcomings as they gain insight into each others’ perspectives, and both the relational woes and personal qualms are assuaged.
Yet, it is the style of the work that distinguishes The Divine Secrets from the ordinary. The Divine Secrets does for the depiction of Southern white female what The Joy Luck Club achieved for the Asian American female. The portrayal of female friendship and motherdaughter relationships are shown with gritty realism. The perpetual presence of abuse and alcoholism, the routine triteness of the tacky middle-class, and the down-to-earth, unpretentious observations about life all contribute a fresh interpretation to the classic (or, depending on one’s perspective, banal) theme of mother-daughter conflict. This unique variation of the setting in itself allows for entertaining reading matter and lush ground for new perspective and insight. The rich grasp of setting permeates all of the literary aspects of the work; instead of concerns about race and familial duty a la Amy Tan, the concerns of this book are flavored with the Louisiana bayou: Northernization of the daughter, Catholic guilt, and the particular difficulties of small-town life.
Also, though the book is unabashedly pro-woman, the characters do not come across as predictable feminist icons. The women of this book often come across as backward and trashy, sometimes unlikable, always busy raising children, and more-or-less content to live in a society that views women as domestic figures. Relatedly, the men in this story are not always adversarial, but rather are shown in the full diversity that they come in with actual life. They are befuddled husbands, sensitive lovers, and sympathetic brothers that are palpably present in women’s lives as well as aloof fathers, detached priests, and exploitative businessmen in the periphery.
While the plot seems predictable, once one scratches below the surface, one finds that the book breaks away from stereotypes and into an admirable realism through a more multi-faceted, complicated psychology of a mother-daughter relationship. The novel does not fall prey to the mistake that many other novels in its genre make. It does not merely describe to the reader the generic motherdaughter relationship; it does not rely on the sympathy built on surface similarities to impart a sense of camaraderie and satisfaction to its readers. Rather, it describes in great detail the story of one very particular relationship: an abusive, jealous mother who lives in a love-hate pendulum relationship with her successful daughter. It is not the overly replayed story of generational barriers and motherdaughter misunderstandings, but one of a very personalized situation. In this sort of depiction is perhaps one of the highest compliments that a prowoman book may pay to femalehood: the depiction of a character not merely as a flat female icon or race icon, but as an individual, with the depth of character to stand on her own. The problems that the characters in this book encounter, more so than characters from other books in this genre, are not female problems or Southern redneck problems, but the problems of two unique people, with the depth and imperfection of actual human beings.
Despite these redeeming qualities which elevate The Divine Secrets above most books in the “sentimental chick novel” genre, the work still falls short of being meaningful, convincing fiction as a whole. Wells tries to show the reader that there is profundity even in the ordinary lives of a few Southern smalltown girls and their lifelong friendships. However, in the attempt, she makes a damning blunder: she colors the charm of the down-to-earth Southern characters and their lives with a jarring pretentiousness that gives an artificial ring to the entire novel. Every chapter ends with a cryptic sentence or two that beats the reader over the head with some hackneyed observation or symbolism about life which Wells imagines as novel or profound: “Life is so short,” “There are some things you never show and tell,” and “Her eyes remained closed, but Sidda was far from being asleep.” In fact, the most profound parts of the novel are those moments of natural narrative, where a tactful hint or controlled connotation would suffice to give the message in intimate confidence. It is in trying to be purposely profound that Wells loses the sensible realism that makes her book so uniquely attractive a read; it also suggests that perhaps Wells herself did not fully realize what about her writing style makes her novel effective.
Great stories do not merely sympathize with a reader’s own experience and reinforce what the audience already knows. Such books only become bestsellers at best, a success only in economic or popular terms. A meaningful novel is more than an eloquent yes-man, but a force that brings readers to a liminal space where they may step out beyond the tired hackneyed view with which they approach their experiences. The work is a portal toward a grander perspective that comes from taking a detached step away—a perspective that is often inaccessible when one is actively living one’s experiences. The Divine Secrets is a book that one may find enjoyable for its gaudy, realistic depiction of women’s lives and friendships in the South, and its reputation as a bestseller is well-deserved—for a bestseller is a reflection of public appeal. It excels as a creative variation in the mother-daughter themed genre. However, it lacks the depth of content and guileless communication of meaning to impress as a work that imparts challenging meaning. Rather than carefully divulging her novel’s secrets with private delicacy, Wells trumpets the meanings until even the literarily deaf may hear—and cover their ears. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: it is a recommended read for pure enjoyment if one likes to read about that sort of thing, but a far cry from a work of literature.