Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a 1996 novel by Rebecca Wells. Adapted into a 2002 film by Callie Khouri. Both works follow the stories of four lifetime friends who make up their own secret society in Sweet Home Alabama, the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The girls are scandalous, spunky, spirited young women who grow up to become ... well, there's where the problems really start.

Viviane Joan "Vivi" Abbott Walker, the leader of the Sisterhood, becomes an abusive alcoholic who beats her (three or four, depending on whether you're watching or reading) children in a dissociative episode wherein she becomes convinced that the reason her offspring are so annoying to her is because they are possessed by the devil. Years later, the eldest daughter, Siddalee Walker, now a successful playwright, accidentally exposes the whole incident in a magazine story which describes Vivi, quite accurately, as a "tap-dancing child abuser." She is disowned. Vivi's three friends decide to fix matters by kidnapping Sidda away from her fiancee and taking her home to force the two to talk.

While this is the central chain of events, the story details the events surrounding the situation, moving through time to explore friends, relatives, heartaches and joys. It recounts events from the Sisterhood's childhood and Sidda's, even reaching back to the adolescence of Vivi's mother on a couple of occasions, and paints a picture of generations of deeply flawed women who are nonetheless, by degrees, learning to function as individuals and form their own families.

There's a sequel to the book, Little Altars Everywhere, in which the child abuse is a lot more sexualized and egregious. Arguably a Downer Ending: The point seems to be that while Siddalee has gotten past her childhood and used it to grow ... she's got three siblings who are yet to have such experiences.

Tropes used in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood include:
  • Abusive Parents: Oh Jesus and how. In the central instance Siddalee is stripped and beaten to the point of wetting herself; Little Altars Everywhere makes it clear that dear Momma was shtupping the youngest son, Baylor, and heavily implies that she was either getting off on the beatings she was dealing out or trying to make things better.
  • American Accents: The oh-so-British Dame Maggie Smith with a gen-u-wine magnolia matron accent strong enough to inspire cognitive dissonance.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the book, Vivi and Sidda finish the book laughing and crying on a porch swing, and tacitly acknowledge their past with a ritual exchange of tears. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: As a teenager, Vivi is sent to a harrowing religious school where toilet paper is rationed, food is gruel and she is left passed out on a dirty bathroom floor while a prefect reports her for being wasteful.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: "They weren't all lies, Momma. Or have you forgotten the feel of a belt in your hand?"
  • The Deep South: In Vivi and the gang's home, somewhat (note the name Siddalee ...) When the Sisterhood visits one of their aunts ... ohhh dear.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: An unusual male example, but it definitely counts. Vivi's boyfriend attracts the attention of everyone everywhere ever because he just looks and sounds so pretty when playing his fiddle. It's also used to demonstrate what a gentleman he is; there's a very touching scene in the book where he dedicates a song to Vivi's unattractive, unloved mother and nearly makes her cry with happiness.
  • Hollywood Nuns: Averted, surprisingly enough. Vivi's boarding school features a nightmarish cast of teachers, but some of the administration (most notably the infirmary) is tended to by a different order with different rules and different penguin dresses.
  • Lady Drunk: Vivi. She goes to the lake so the kids can swim ... with a large water bottle full of her special "re-Vivi-fication tonic" (read: contains vodka).
  • Parental Neglect: Where exactly is Vivi's husband when the kids are getting beaten and molested?
  • Parental Incest: Vivi's mother thinks this when her father gives Vivi a ring during her birthday.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: In the film, Siddalee is depicted as a woman in her 30s (in 2002) despite being born in the early 1950s at the latest.