Ya-Yas on Vacation

A perquisite of volunteering at the hospital is that one can borrow any book in the library as long as one returns it. I learned this valuable bit of information just before I left for California and immediately picked out two books to take with me.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was the lighter of the two in both the literal and figurative sense; I also took Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I’m finding disturbing and fascinating.

I started reading about the Ya-Yas on the ride out but interrupted it and only finished the on the last day. In between I read Like Water For Chocolate. (See “Disappearing Panthers; Latin Confusion,” October 9).

The Ya-Yas are four bored girls from wealthy or formerly wealthy families who bond as children in their tiny, inbred enclave on the bayou. The novel opens as Siddalee Walker, daughter of Ya-Ya Vivi Walker Abbott, has just directed a brilliant play and followed it with an interview in the New York Times about her mother, which runs under the headline “Tap-dancing child abuser.”

The balance of the novel is the story of how the Ya-Yas came to be who they are and how Sidda uncovers their past.

What impressed me most was that the women’s loyalty and support for each other never waivered in the face of births, deaths, war, and various other crises. Of course sustaining their  relationship was made easier by the fact that they all stayed in the little backwater town on the Garnet River. Then it dawned on me – where would they go? They were mothers and housewives with high school educations and no skills.

Reading about the Ya-Yas in California gave me a wonderful study in contrast, which I love. (See “Too Much,” from July 21 for my description of reading Angela’s Ashes on the beach in Hawaii and The Feminine Mystique in Mexico.)

The contrast here wasn’t complete because Sidda spends a portion of the novel the Cascade Mountains among Douglas firs as I was spending my time in the cool of the northern California redwoods. But for the most part the Ya-Yas occupy what author Rebecca Wells calls “the hot heart of Louisiana,” much of it in the days before air conditioning where the women and children of leisure stayed cool by swimming in the creek and sleeping on porches covered with mosquito netting. Even the progressive Sidda who lives in New York and then escapes to Washington State can’t leave the bayou. She has to take along her little dog, Hueylene, named for Governor Huey Long.  Her fiancé, however, is not welcome.

The people and the time were a study in contrast from my surroundings as well. From watching the diverse, laid-back Bay area, I dove into the Ya-Yas milieu of the pre-World War II South, where black folks were still very much oppressed and no one seemed to notice. Nevertheless, their exploitation of their nurse maids and housekeepers seemed far more benign after three Ya-Yas visit Atlanta, where the servants were still treated just like slaves. In fact that portion of the book contained my favorite scene in which hot-tempered Vivi called out the pretentious Atlanta folks who were trying to re-enact Gone With the Wind. The positive side of this whole business was that the entire region’s penchant for eating food laden with too much salt and too much fat killed many of them off before their time.

Even more impressive than the food was the quantities of alcohol the Ya-Yas consumed. Then I remembered, this was Louisiana, and these folks were not Bible-thumpers, so of course they drank, a lot. But starting the day with a pitcher of bloody marys and a BLT sounds about as revolting an activity as one could engage in.

Kathryn said she thought the novel was superficial, and it certainly isn’t To the Lighthouse. Except for Vivi and Sidda, the characters are mostly physical description (Caro’s 5 foot 9 inch frame with long legs; vs. olive-complected Teensy, barely five feet tall with a perfect body that she showed off to anyone willing to look; and Necie with the long brown hair.) Even their names were fluffy – sort of like the girls in Portnoy’s Complaint, which the guy says are named after Donald Duck’s nephews.

But despite the superficialities, Divine Secrets offers substantial insights into the toxic nature of abuse and damning evidence of the ways it infects succeeding generations.

So in the end, I was glad Sidda resolved her problems – right about the time the very late USAir flight touched down in Hartford.

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