In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, recent winner of The Story Prize, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.”
There is power in the secrets we keep, the stories we choose to tell, and the people we hold close, however many or few there may be. These are the throughlines in Deesha Philyaw’s debut collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. These stories are as intimate as they are powerful, and there’s a nuance to the truths they tell. In “Jael,” a great-grandmother uncovers secrets in Jael’s diary that get “worser and worser” the more she reads—and yet, she steps back and allows Jael to make her own complicated decisions. Each woman lives with their own version of the truth and ultimately is changed by it, a narrative that is echoed in “Peach Cobbler.” Philyaw’s language melds food and body in a way that feels visceral; as Pastor Neely eats Olivia’s mother’s peach cobbler, his lips are “parted and glistening,” and the spoon “practically disappeared in his bear paw of a hand.” He is an animal, consuming this extension of Olivia’s mother’s self, which complicates the narrative’s turn when Olivia makes her own peach cobbler as an act of defiance and her own pursuit of power. Philyaw deftly guides her readers through this twist because of her ability to craft characters that feel authentically complicated, with more below the surface than the reader can plainly see—but we feel those layers through the characters’ actions, like Lyra’s thought processes in “How to Make Love to a Physicist” as she uses lessons from therapy to process her feelings toward a love interest, even as she pushes him away.
Philyaw’s stories are alternately joyful and sorrowful, sprinkled with a sense of levity that comes from earnest self-awareness. In “Dear Sister,” the main character writes to a sister she didn’t know she had, sharing news that their father died. She writes, “It’s all about who you are and what you’ve been through and what, if anything, it means to you to share a father with my sisters Renee, Kimba, Tasheta, and me.” She doesn’t compel her to join their family, nor does she tell her to stay away—she simply tells her truth, lays her heart on the table, and lets her sister make the next step. So, too, does Philyaw, letting us into the worlds of these women and their secrets and their fears. We are not given helping hands because life did not give her characters helping hands, either. As the narrator of “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” says, “All the risk is yours, but I’ll wade out into it with you. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the deep end.”
For the women of Secret Lives of Church Ladies, the church’s influence dominates their lives, whether or not they consider themselves devout. Their bodies, sexualities, the roles they’re meant to play in the family and community as women—all of it has been defined by the church and further instilled by the maternal figures in their lives. Even if the men are allowed their every whim, like the absent father in “Dear Sister” or the philandering pastor in “Peach Cobbler,” the women are expected to uphold their virtue and negate their own desires to put everyone else first.
But Deesha Philyaw is not interested in glorifying the struggles of Black women or ennobling them into martyrs. Instead, each woman, in her own way, in her own time, pushes back to acknowledge her own desire. How she wants to claim it, what she’ll give up in exchange for it, is a purely personal choice. In “Eula,” Caroletta is in love with her best friend, and despite knowing Eula may never reciprocate, appeases herself with the little she’s given without giving up hope. In contrast, in “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands,” the mistress lays out her terms for entanglement in strict, sometimes sardonic, detail. She won’t waste time on men who don’t follow her expectations, and neither she nor Carlotta are deemed any less worthwhile for choosing what the other did not.
And if the woman, like the mistress, voices her fears and desires aloud, it doesn’t automatically condemn her. In “Snowfall” and “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” each woman’s choices has repercussions, as all actions do, but there’s a catharsis she gains from speaking out, as well as an opportunity for her loved ones to grow closer.
Deesha Philyaw’s collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, opens up with a quote from Ansel Elkins poem, “Autobiography of Eve.” “Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. I leapt to freedom.” Philyaw takes us through nine stories about the lives of different Black woman, where she explores the same themes of the self, desire, and God. The problem that arises is that Philyaw uses the same tone in each story to present those themes, making each main character sound like different versions of the same person. I’d like to say the tone in each story is different enough to have successfully created its own distinct and original voice, but I can’t. Creating one story with an original voice is already difficult enough, but to create multiple stories with distinct and original voices is a huge challenge. We’re given nine stories that blend into one big story about similarly written main characters, like one big painting divided into nine squares, brushed with shades of the same color.
It isn’t the characters or the themes that are the issue, but the overarching sameness in tone that blends them all together, making each main character’s story lose its distinctness and remembrance in the mind of the reader once finished. The ideas of God and grace for example could have easily been worked on to separate each stories tone, introducing a new language and style for each main character in respect to those themes. As a reader, I so desperately tried to find some major distinction in voice. I looked for tone. I looked for a difference in the ideas of God presented to me because that’s what I expected when I read Elkin’s quote. I’m still looking for them.
Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, provides raw and poignantly told narratives of Black women whose lives are fraught with wanting more than what their church-going days gave them. While the nine stories in Philyaw’s collection never cross over one another or culminate into a grand finale, each manages to explore themes of sexuality, family, Christianity, motherhood, love, and marriage—in varied, but consistently complicated ways. For example, the third story “Dear Sister” is an epistolary. Through the process of having the main character write a letter to her unknown sister and catching her up on what their father was like, Philyaw comments on the many effects a not-so-present father can have on a family. The eighth story, “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” is a Q and A. Through the process of having the main character repeat the same question while answering the same question in a linear chronological fashion, Philyaw suggests how certain questions not only elucidate our desires, but also introduce and return us to certain people.
In both “Dear Sister” and “Peach Cobbler,” the layered quality to Philyaw’s storytelling shines. In the former, there’s an interesting effect the epistolary form has on the story. Because the main character actively addresses the unknown sister and shares the remarks the other sisters have on the letter actually being written (even as they’re all bickering), there’s an added honesty to the story. Not that the epistolary form itself is any truer than other forms. Rather, the consistent awareness lends itself to the feeling that the main character is genuinely trying to welcome the unknown sister, especially as we begin to see how flawed yet upfront the main character is to others and how the act of writing the letter itself appears to act as a reconciliation process for her. In “Peach Cobbler,” the layered quality to Philyaw’s writing shows in her imagery and dynamic scene work. Without spoiling too much, the main character describes and interacts with her mother’s peach cobbler in many different ways. This allows Philyaw to twist and turn scene–images that had been well-grounded into the story have suddenly distorted under interpersonal conflict. All-in-all, while I might have wanted to see beyond some the collection’s abrupt endings, the ways Deesha Philyaw weaves the inner and exterior worlds of Black women struggling to feel wanted brings me back to the poignant snippets she did end up crafting for us to see.
The language of the first narrator (Caroletta) feels mechanical. While the intrigue of church women having affairs with each other is sustained, there is something almost jaded and tailor-made within the writing itself. The text feels like it was written to satisfy a prompt concerning women of color who also happen to be part of the LGBT community—which is odd, because “Snowfall” does not have this issue. However, once the first short story is complete, the following narrators in the remaining sections are much more sincere and naturally written. The emotional and sexual need for human connection become visceral and honest in the “Not-Daniel”, “Peach Cobbler”, “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands”, and “When Eddie Levert Comes” sections.
The discontent and constant disappointment felt by a majority of women in these stories touches at the heart of the question they are collectively asking, “How can I be fulfilled with/without a man?” Some of the stories answer this by highlighting familial, personal, and more long-term connections with others (“Dear Sister”, “Snowfall”, “How to Make Love to a Physicist”, “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands”, “When Eddie Levert Comes”), whereas some stories don’t (“Eula”, “Not-Daniel”, “Peach Cobbler”, “Jael”). This collection offers itself as a reflection of the varied circumstances and shared experiences within a community. Some people find happiness and fulfillment in real life while the rest of the populace either moves on quietly or suffers. These stories remind us that there is nothing definitive in life, and death is too uncertain to provide much comfort. The often dastardly secrets between these women and the people they connect with are the glue that either keep them content, happy, or downright miserable. Overall, it’s an excellent assortment of gut-wrenching and pleasurable affairs. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is well worth a second and even a third read.
S. N. Valadez
Curated by Brandon Williams