Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

I’m not always a fan of movies based on books I’ve enjoyed, but rarely do they actually make me angry. The movie version of Rebecca Wells’ The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood still makes me cringe.

The novel though, is a fantastic read.

I love stories with multiple points of view. In Divine Secrets, not only are there multiple points of view, but there are also two (and maybe even three, when I think about it) distinct eras in play. The two obvious ones are past and present: The past being the story of Vivi Walker’s childhood and the present being the reality of her grown-up daughter Siddalee.

But let me back up and explain what exactly is going on here.

Siddalee lives in New York, is a playwright and is getting married. But her fiancé hasn’t met her family and the idea of her two worlds colliding is causing Sidda severe anxiety. But after a visit from her mother’s three best friends—Caro, Teensy and Necie, the Ya-Yas—Sidda gains possession of her mother’s old scrapbook “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” which offers her a much-needed perspective on Vivi’s past.

And the story unfolds. At this point, the narrative moves between Sidda’s present and Vivi’s past (which was always my favourite part, really).

Vivi grew up during the Depression and the war years; she went to the premier of Gone With the Wind, she fell in love, she had a truly wicked and vindictive mother. But most of all, Vivi had great friends with whom she had adventures—not real adventures though, but the kind of adventures that happen when you do otherwise ordinary things with great people.

Eventually, Sidda makes her way home to talk to the Ya-Yas because, although she has learned a lot about her mother, Sidda hasn’t seen enough to forgive her. Sidda blames Vivi for her own miserable childhood and can’t really believe there is an explanation for it. Sidda remembers being beaten, she remembers her mother being drunk, and she remembers her mother being gone—none of which has ever been explained to her.

This is the murky third era of the book: Between Vivi’s childhood and Sidda’s present there is a middle in which they lived as mother and daughter. It’s the most difficult part of the novel to place, because it never gets explained in the same almost-linear way that the other parts do.

It has been a few years since I last read Divine Secrets, but some scenes were so painfully vivid I don’t think I could forget them if I tried. Mostly, though, the images and the emotions Wells paints in her novel are what make it so memorable.

Wells has created such a vivid world that you can’t help but want to go back there again and again. There are not nearly enough stories that portray female friendships as complex and changing, but the relationships between the Ya-Yas are tangible and alive, and feel the way real-life relationships feel. Wells resists the usual temptation to make her characters into archetypes or female representatives; rather, she allows them to be their own women, which is much more interesting.

And, for all the fun Vivi and the Ya-Yas have, it is the dark scenes—the abuse, the despair and the hatred—that round out the story. Wells doesn’t shy away from describing her characters’ flaws and the consequences thereof, but neither is she gratuitously bleak. Rather, the lives she describes are so full they could be real, and so real you almost wish they could have been yours.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
By Rebecca Wells
First published in 1996 (cover image shown from Harper Collins edition)

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