I have discovered so many great books on The Literary Life podcast, which is hosted by Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Books & Books in Miami, FL. That is how I learned about Deesha Philyaw's short story collection called The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.
As the title suggests, each of the nine stories focuses on a woman who considers herself religious, but defies the rules and norms of the church behind closed doors.
The very first story, Eula, is about a woman having a secret affair with another woman. They meet up in hotel rooms to keep things discreet, though their sexual relationship is anything but that. On page three, "Eula is a true believer. She doesn't walk around with questions lingering in her throat like I do. But that night, she lid my fingers inside those white cotton panties and forgot all about Boaz. We stayed up until we were slick with sweat. Later that morning, Eula tamped down regret with silence and coffee."
In the story When Eddie Levert Comes, a daughter talks about her mother finding God. On page 167, "Unfortunately the zeal of the newly converted is bewildering to the children of the newly converted. One Saturday night, you've got every blanket in the house draped over your head to drown out the sound of your mother's headboard banging against your bedroom wall as she hollers her soon-to-be-ex-best friend's husband's name. And the next Saturday night, she's snatching the softened deck of playing cards out of your hands because 'Games of chance are from the devil!'"
How to Make Love to a Physicist is a story about discovering your own body. A woman who was repressed her whole life comes out of her shell after meeting a man she's carnally attracted to. On page 109, "And as your body begins to feel like home, your courage grows. It grows bigger than your mother's chastisement in the parking lot after service the first time you go to church unbound. She asks why you aren't wearing a girdle, why you aren't sucking in the way she taught you thirty years ago, and how dare you come into the house of the Lord that way. Your mother, who complains of women in the church nowadays committing the sin of visible panty lines, reminds you that she raised you better than this. And you say, 'I'm tired of holding my breath.' Then you promise you won't come to church that way again. And you keep your word because you won't go to church again at all."
My favorite in the collection is titled Peach Cobbler. It's told from the perspective of a young girl, Olivia, watching her mother have an affair with their church's pastor. Each week he comes over for peach cobbler. As if witnessing this wasn't enough, Olivia is asked to tutor the pastor's son, serving as a mole for her mother inside that house. To complicate things further, Olivia begins a sexual relationship of her own with the pastor's son. The story is messy and complicated, with a surprise ending that will leave your jaw on the floor.
There are many things that make this book special, but Philyaw's descriptive writing is at the top of my list. There's one passage in the story Snowfall that illustrates her gift perfectly. On page 78, "But what we really miss are the laughter and embrace of our mothers and grandmothers and aunties, kin and not kin. We miss the big oak tables in their dining rooms where, as kids in the seventies and eighties, we ate bowl after bowl of their banana pudding as they talked to each other about how much weight you'd gained, like you weren't even there. We miss helping them snap green beans and shell peas sitting at their kitchen tables watching The Young and the Restless on the TV perched on the pass through. We miss how they loved Victor Newman, hated Jill Foster, and envied Miss Chancellor and how she dripped diamonds and chandeliers."
It continues, "We miss their bare brown arms reaching to hang clothes on the line with wooden pins. We miss their sun tea brewed all day in big jars on the picnic table in the backyard, then later loaded with sugar and sipped over plates of their fried chicken early in the evening. We miss lying next to the at night in their four-poster beds with too-soft mattresses covered by iron sheets and three-generation old blankets. We miss their housecoats, perfumed with Absorbine Jr. liniment and hints of the White Shoulders they'd spritzed on from an atomizer that morning before church. We miss tracing soft folds in their skin when we held hands and watched our favorite TV shows in their beds. Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest."
Can't you picture each one of those moments vividly? I aspire to write with that kind of richness.
I loved this book. I couldn't wait to see who I would meet in each story and what her secret would be.
I think these tales would make for an incredible television series. The Peach Cobbler story alone could be at least three or four episodes. I'd love to see Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington produce the adaptation, like they did with Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere.
If you're looking for your next read, put this at the top of your list.