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Mommy-Issues in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

by Dawn on March 28, 2008
category: Pop culture

Warm weather is nearly here (that is, some of us are in the throes of heat waves already, others are enjoying the sunny spring they’re accustomed to, and still more of you are sitting inside with snow in your yard, so work with me here!), and that means it’s time for a good beach read.  I love to curl up with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood  by Rebecca Wells. It’s not exactly on the “new arrivals” shelf at your local Barnes & Noble, but its mother-daughter relationship is worth discussing. I have read it about three times, and I always enjoy its rich storytelling, humor, poignance, and descriptions of old-time, down-home Louisiana living. Even as I type this post, I feel myself starting to think in the Southern accent and manner of speaking that these books so vividly allude to. So grab a glass of tea, dahlin, and read on, if you dare.

The book (and its two companions, Little Altars Everywhere and Ya-Yas in Bloom) is full of fabulous characters and lots of soapy intrigue, but its main storyline centers around the relationship between Viviane Joan Abbott Walker and her oldest daughter, Siddalee. And my word, is it dysfunctional.

Sidda’s the classic “oldest child” – a responsible, perfectionistic worrywart. As a child, she looked after her siblings while her dad went out hunting, her mother drank, and they both argued.  She grew up believing she was responsible for her mother’s unhappiness with life.  In her adulthood, she spends thousands of dollars on therapy and writes plays about her childhood as a form of catharsis. And she messes up royally by sharing with an interviewer too many juicy tidbits about her past. Vivi reads the article, shocked and humiliated, and promises to disown her firstborn immediately. Thus begins our tale, told in a series of revealing, sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful flashbacks. As the two begrudgingly work towards repairing their broken relationship, Sidda learns more about her mother than she ever dreamed when Vivi’s lifelong friends (the “Ya-Yas”) share their special book of secrets and dreams (hence the novel’s title).

Vivi Abbott Walker is one of the most interesting mom characters I’ve ever read:

She’s fabulously charismatic.  Vivi sure knows how to have fun!  From an early age, she demonstrates a knack for doing things with flair, whether it be dressing up to the nines for the premiere of Gone With the Wind as a little girl, putting on fabulous parties, wearing the latest fashions, or responding to anyone with a perfectly witty comment.  Her friends are unflinchingly loyal to her, her kids can’t resist her, and as a reader, I find myself wanting to know more about her.

She’s irrevocably flawed.  Despite her charms, Vivi has a boatload of issues.  After growing up with a mother who hated her, she was confused about her self-worth, wondering if she was an inherently bad person.  Her Catholic faith offered her either condemnation or comfort, depending on the issue she was facing.  She often found herself in the middle of public speculation, the favorite subject of unforgiving rumors.  Her first (and true) love died in the war, and she more or less “settled for” Sidda’s father.  Her drinking problem created more issues for the family.  While she loved her kids, she wondered (oftentimes aloud, in front of the kids) why she couldn’t do more with her life.  At times, she painfully took out her anger on the kids.  After reading her story numerous times, I find myself perplexed and saddened by her many internal struggles and their lasting effects on the children.

After learning all about her mother’s troubled childhood, it fills in the blanks for Sidda, giving her a richer context for why her mother behaves the way she does (and why Sidda was sometimes on the receiving end of Vivi’s anger: she was simply there.)  When Sidda learns to combine her mother’s attractive, wonderful attributes with the knowledge that Vivi’s just another frail human being, struggling to get by, Sidda realizes that it’s awfully hard to hold a grudge against someone so beautiful and imperfect.  Someone who loves Siddalee greatly.

I find it fitting that the author quotes Henri Nouwen in the opening pages: “The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour – unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”

Sidda realizes that her mother, as imperfect as she is, needs grace and understanding, just as much as she does. Just as much as all of us do.  It is our “great work of love” in each of our families: to forgive and be forgiven every day.

Have you read this book? Did you see the movie?  What were your impressions about the mother-daughter relationship it focuses on? Do you have other mommy-issue titles worth recommending? Do share, and have a great weekend, from one imperfect momma to another!

3 Responses to Mommy-Issues in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

  • Comment by Amanda
    March 28, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

    I have actually never read the books or watched the movie, but you have just inspired me to check them out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

  • Comment by Sharon M
    March 29, 2008 @ 12:48 am

    I did watch the movie, but it was before I was a mom. Maybe I can watch it again, or find the book somewhere.

  • Gravatar June 5, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    [...] It was published about a year ago, and I saw it on the paperbacks table at Barnes & Noble.   Because I love The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood so much, I have a radar for any fiction about a group of women friends with the words [...]

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