Contemporary Literature · Short Stories

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

I’ve seen literally nothing but rave reviews for this collection. Some major bookstagrammers who always have the inside track on great new releases, as well as some smaller ones whose recommendations I’ve come to just really trust will line up with my own appreciations. So naturally I added myself to the library waitlist for this one and my hold finally came in! Before I jump into my review, let me just take a moment here to note that this book is so perfectly little, almost like the size of a devotional, which is both adorable and hilariously, snarkily, on point.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

As always with short story collections, I’m going to give a little blurb/reaction for each story as I read it and then I will end with some overall thoughts.

Eula – Well oh my goodness and holy sh*t, if this is the start, then I already get the hype. This is 11 pages of freaking perfection. Cuttingly and succinctly, this story stabs right into the heart of a religious matter that I have long wondered about/not understood: so many people who are marginalized and condescended to and hurt by the church still so strongly have faith. I admire that in some ways, but in others, the pull-quote I included sums up my feelings. If you are belittled and harmed on account of/in accordance with the word of God, as so many peoples (women and LGBTQ being two of those groups I personally identify with) have been over the centuries, how is there not more questioning? If not of the belief itself, then at least a more critical examination of those who “interpret” it to/for us and the way it’s used to rationalize so much evil. In any case, Philyaw is asking the tough questions from the word go! “‘I don’t question God.’ ‘But maybe you should question the people who taught you this version of God.’”    

Not-Daniel­ – Short, but impactful, insight into grief, the way it drives some people together (looking for knowledge of mutual understanding and need for escape) in a way that is both real and…not, in the greater picture. A tender look at what, to use the character’s word, relief, physical connection can provide: essential even if/when it’s not morally clear.

Dear Sister – Mmmmm, this one is pretty heart-wrenching, but its all wrapped up in a outer layer of dark humor and love and some absolutely gorgeous commentary on how no matter what brings people together, even if it’s bad, there is a goodness, a powerful supportiveness, a reaching out that comes with the connections formed from those circumstances. Also, a touching look at the way different people deal with those who let them down, especially when it’s a parent, the different defense and coping mechanisms and hope that carry them through. “Is it better to have the one big hurt of your father not being around and not all those little hurts that come when he disappoints you? Or is it better to have a piece of a father, hurts and all?” / “Because he was a man who took without giving, he left us nothing to grieve.” 

Peach Cobbler – Oh my goodness, this story of involuntary intergenerational patterns, internalized shame and the expectations of deserving that come with money/power (in this case, the power of being a faith-based leader…and the veritable mountain of hypocrisy inherent there), and a whole heap of the “stuck” that comes with no better options being available is enough to make your heart crack right open with sorrow. A hit straight to the solar plexus. “They can raise their child however they see fit. But I’m not going to raise mine to go through life expecting it to be sweet when, for her, it ain’t going to be. The sooner she learns to accept what is and what ain’t, the better. She get a taste of that sweetness, she’s going to want it so bad, she’ll grow up and settle for crumbs of it.”

Snowfall – Such a bittersweet feeling. The having to choose between missing and nostalgia and a history of love or living a current truth and fulfilling the place in your life where a partner lives. Unimaginable choices between types of home and family. Immeasurable small moments of trauma that you have to both learn to deal with and accept/forgive when it doesn’t happen (or causes lashing out). And yet, there are still so many small wonderful moments too. Phew. This was a tough one to read. “But like a beautiful quilt in summertime, my mother’s love was the suffocating kind, the kind you chafe against and don’t miss until the seasons changes and it’s gone.” / “And I wonder if I will ever stop noticing and cataloging all the things we do here that we didn’t – couldn’t – do back home. I wonder if that catalog will ever grow long enough to become enough. For me.” / “My mother who had been my soft place to land. Until she wasn’t.”

How to Make Love to a Physicist – Ohhhh I loved the format and flow of this story. I enjoyed the way is really got into the human interpretation of “the word of God” and the limits that puts into, the guilt it infuses into, his purpose/message/goals. A really unique and great take on science and religion! I also loved the way this story was about self-discovery and the discovery of compatibility with another and how one (the second) cannot be “full” without the other (the first) being developed/ready. The mental self-talk here, talking oneself down/out of something, is recognizable as all hell. Also, the connection between the MCs made me feel super good in this one – that’s what “true” love is for me, that connection. “Even Einstein “So…I say all of this to say that sometimes wheels are set in motion long before the spark is manifest. Is that the same thing as fate? I don’t know, but I do know that rare, brilliant events take time.”

Jael – Oh, wow. I loved this one. It might be my favorite so far. What a build in the story and (not knowing the Bible myself) what a way to connect a biblical name/story to this present-day character. I loved the way Jael’s history, what she’d experienced (horrible as it was), shaped who she became and the choices she made. Plus, the alternating great-grandmother/great-granddaughter perspectives, that gave two unique and opposing interpretations of Jael’s story, with their separate judgements and justifications and “sins” and acceptances gave such nuance to the narrative. Just really spectacularly developed overall. “Granny always say, Every shut-eye ain’t sleep. And that’s how I am. I don’t tell everything I know. I keep some stuff to myself. Sometimes forever, sometimes till the time is right. I just let people think I don’t know what’s going on. And then, when they least expect it…I strike.”

Instructions for Married Christian Husbands – This story has snark and a bite and I am here for it! I want this to be about the daughter, Olivia, from Peach Cobbler. In my head, it is. But yea, this one had me smirking from start to finish, physically, literally. SO good. “You can’t save me, because I’m not in peril.”

When Eddie Levert Comes – This is a tough one, a complex mother-daughter relationship with pain and hurt from the past, the yearning for love despite that and the unknowable horror of losing mind/memory to illness as you age. It’s a tender and harsh in equal measure, as the story demands. Probably the least strong, for me, of the collection, but still, the quieter burn to this one is quite the lingering feel to end on. “She understood how your heart was still connected to your mama, even if she hurt you sometimes.”

Whoa. The hype for this one was real – it lives up to it and more. It is, in fact, one of the only short story collections I’ve given 5 stars to (Sabrina & Corina being the other). I always struggle because with collections, as some are stand-outs and some, inevitably, fall flat. But seriously, this entire book was brilliant from start to finish. Spanning “blasphemous” decisions/acts from abortion to murder to queer love to parental disrespect to violence to infidelity to more, these stories really do expose the “secret” lives of religious/faithful men and women. The title is spot on and the stories deliver, showing the hidden lives behind the faces you see (or no longer see) in church versus what is shown/told to the world, in those moments when they no longer have to appear “good.” Plus, the many ways that family connections can be and grow and exist, especially and particularly with a focus on mother-daughter relationships, is touching and fulfilling and heartbreaking in many ways. I was engrossed in each story, loved the experience of reading this collection, and am just so impressed with the ringing truths within each character’s reality, displayed with such equal compassion and severity. I highly, highly, highly, recommend this (physically) small but (emotionally) vast collection.  

As an “afterwards” I’d like to add the following: I watched an IG live with Philyaw and @ablackmanreading when I was about halfway through reading this and they were talking about the screen adaptation of this collection that was just announced (yay!). Philyaw talked about how she is considering connecting these in a sort of universe, where certain characters in some stories show up as side characters in others, beyond what was actually in this book. And I spent the second half of my reading experience trying to imagine any/all possible “universe” combination connections. It was super fun. And now I really can’t wait to watch how it actually happens! 

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7 thoughts on “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

  1. I really enjoyed this one too and the snark is certainly one of the big reasons why I did. How to Make Love to a Physicist was my favorite, though, for how it flows. It made me think of a poem. Eula was a strong beginning, and I liked Dear Sister as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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