The Ya-Ya Boxed Set

by Rebecca Wells

Published by HarperCollins

Two book set, 1999

Buy it online



Little Ya-Yas Everywhere

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Rebecca Wells' first novel, Little Altars Everywhere, is these days often referred to as "a sleeper bestseller," which simply means that when it was published by Washington state's Broken Moon Press in 1992, the publishing world did not stand and applaud. In fact, as is often the case with the reasonably wonderful annual offerings of literary presses everywhere, the world at large didn't pay much attention at all. Nor is the publishing history of Little Altars Everywhere an isolated occurrence. Every year small and medium-sized presses produce some wonderful books that fall on mostly deaf ears. In fact, even as you read this, a small publisher somewhere in the world is getting ready to launch a truly exceptional book that almost no one on the planet will notice. At first. At least until that book either falls into the hands of an editor at a big house with an eye and passion, or until the author produces something with more marketing legs than that first manuscript of perfect prose had to offer.

Reading both Ya-Ya books -- Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood back-to-back gives absolute credence to this scenario. Little Altars Everywhere is, in many ways, a nearly perfect book. Wells' voice and mission seem absolutely clear. Written in the first person and told by eight different voices, Little Altars Everywhere focuses on the coming-of-age of a rural Louisiana girl, Siddalee Walker, under the shadow of an alcoholic and sharply abusive mother. Little Altars Everywhere is by turns poetic, dark, sharply funny and deeply moving. In Little Altars, Siddalee's mother, Vivi Abbott makes Mommy Dearest's Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver. She abuses her four children in every way imaginable: even sexual abuse is alluded to and physical and emotional abuse are the common threads that bind the individual stories together.

Despite the necessary darkness that these threads engender, Little Altars Everywhere is an absolute delight. Wells, herself a native of Louisiana, has captured echoes of the South so absolutely, I spent most of my time reading craving a "Bourbon and Branch," a drink I've never, ever tasted.

We are swinging in this just-right rhythm. We are swinging high, flying way up, higher than in real life. And when I look down, I see all the ordinary stuff -- our brick house, the porch, the tool shed, the back windows, the oil-drum barbecue pit, the clothesline, the chinaberry tree. But they are all lit up from the inside so their everyday selves have holy sparks in them, and if people could only see those sparks, they'd go and kneel in front of them and pray and just feel good. Somehow the whole world just looks like little altars everywhere. And every time Edythe and me fly up into the air and then dive down to earth, it's like we're bowing our heads at those altars and we are praying and playing all the same time.

Nominally a sequel to Little Altars, if read back-to-back Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood doesn't read like a sequel at all. It's more like the same family in an alternate universe, or from the viewpoint of an entirely different cast of characters: which it is not. In Divine Secrets we once again meet Siddalee, Vivi and Vivi's three girlhood friends who -- together -- make up the Ya-Ya sisterhood. However, in Divine Secrets Siddalee is less damaged and Vivi is altogether less damaging. We are still given glimpses of abuse, but if you only read that book, your view of Vivi would be far less dim. In this way, Divine Secrets has the feel of a Hollywood remake of Little Altars. The very dark parts of the tale have been replaced with happy vignettes and trite endings.

Divine Secrets doesn't cover the same ground as the first book and the story is told in a very different way. Divine Secrets is told in a more conventional narrative form. The book begins a few years after Little Altars ends, with Sidda contemplating the scars she's carried to adulthood. However, most of the book is spent in flashbacks: some to Sidda's childhood, and others to Vivi and the other Ya-Yas' own coming of age.

The side porch -- that's where the Ya-Yas went if their hair was in pin curls, when they didn't want to wave and chat to passersby. This is where they sighed, this is where they dreamed. This is where they lay for hours, contemplating their navels, sweating, dozing, swatting flies, trading secrets there on the porch in a hot, humid girl soup. And in the evening when the sun went down, the fireflies would light up over the camellias, and that little nimbus of light would lull the Ya-Yas even deeper into porch reveries. Reveries that would linger in their bodies even as they aged.

It's beautiful stuff. Again, deeply moving and easy to fall right into, dreading the turn of the last page. I would, however, have been happier if Wells had given these women and their families different names and not gone back to the Siddalee Walker well at all, so different are these people depicted in this second book. As delightful as they all are, they don't behave the same as the characters in book one, and it's hard -- when the books are read one behind the other -- to forgive Wells for her softening of the characters.

That said, none of this is any reason to give the Ya-Yas a miss. Wells has perfectly captured an era, a locale and -- most importantly -- the sometimes tenuous but always powerful relationship between mothers and daughters. | September 1999

MONICA STARK is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and editor.