N will probably kill me for writing this, as I know these are ‘her’ books, but over the summer one of the things that stood between me and madness was the Ya-Ya sisterhood, so I’m going to write it anyway.
Little Altars Everywhere was published in 1992 by a very small publishing house and with an even smaller marketing budget. The book, written using the style of several POV characters, told the story of a family and community living in Louisiana from the 1930s through to the present day. Focusing on the Walker Clan, the book explored the things that nice Southern families aren’t supposed to talk about-alcoholism, abuse, the impact of religious extremism on a family, race, and class. It was followed in 1996 by Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which was told both in third and first person, and examined the relationship between Vivi Abbott Walker and her eldest child, Siddalee. This book was phenomenally successful, a New York Times Bestseller, and was made into a film staring everybody. The third book in the series, Ya-Yas In Bloom, was published in 2005, again with Vivi, the Walker clan, and the power of female friendship, as the focus.
If you ask Wikipedia, it will tell you Little Altars was Divine Secrets prequel, as it was re-published after Divine Secrets’ success. This is a shame, as, in my opinion, Little Altars is the better book. The writing is fresher, the characters more vivid and less sentimental, and the world created is more ‘real’ to me than the almost fairytale nature of the Deep South presented in Divine Secrets, and more so in Ya-Yas in Bloom.
What I love these books for is their completeness. The entire history of a family that often nears collapse but manages to pull itself together due to the close nature of the friendship of four women, the Ya-Yas, is there in front of the reader. Because every member of the family receives a good going over, either in Little Alters or in Divine Secrets, their motivations are clear. We understand why Vivi abuses her children, though we do not condone it, through seeing how she was treated by her father. This is the premise for the Divine Secrets film; only by knowing people’s history can you understand them.
Vivi, the matriarch and social focus around whom the action rotates, is one of the most complex characters in fiction. But, and I know I’m going to have someone intaking breathe at this point, I don’t like her. I understand her, but I didn’t like her. I don’t like Siddalee either, which is probably even more a disgusting thing to say.
These books aren’t about liking the characters though. Like Amber, or Scarlett, we see women living lives with the constraints put upon them because of their gender, the social circumstance of the time, but still rebelling against them with the result that they are ‘Othered’ by society around them. The women who do conform, such as Mytis is the Ya-Yas in Bloom, on of the only really good bits in what was otherwise a overtly sentimental book that came across, sadly, as a money-spinner, are never the less unhappy with their lot. This shows it is the social constraints and norms that are at fault, not the rebels. Wells’ portrayal as Catholicism is particularly harsh; the good parts such as the feeling of lightness after confession and community feeling of Church are far outweighed by the attitude of religious radicals and Orthodox practices of those that practice it in extremes. Nuns in particular are demonised.
What the books show, for me, most of all, is how rubbish a world without stigma free choice is, and how a good, understanding, and patient friendship without demands can sustain a damaged life.
I love the books, especially the first two. If you’ve read Divine Secrets but have missed out of Little Alters, please, bed borrow or steal (don’t steal) as you are missing out!