Last week I reread one of my favourite books: Lousiana-born writer Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, first published in 1996.
In case you don’t know, it’s the story of a feud between a mother, Vivi, and a daughter, Sidda, that stretches back in time to Vivi’s youth in mid-century Louisiana and forward to the potential derailing of Sidda’s wedding in what was then the present day. It’s also a story about female friendship – the “Ya-Ya sisterhood” of the title.
Part of why I love it is that it’s so consciously of Lousiana, where Vivi still lives and which Sidda has largely left behind. To pick just a few examples, we’re given bourré, fisherman’s mass, cochon de lait, pecan tarts, crawfish étouffée, Community Coffee, and more bourbon and bayous than you can shake a Cajun fiddle at.
But despite having cultural roots very different to mine, the book still has many personal resonances for me.
I read it for the first time when I’d just started at university, having never lived away from home and my family before. The reason I picked it up was because Louisiana – which I’d never visited at this point – fascinated me because I knew my mother had spent a term at Tulane as a university exchange student in the 1970s.
Two years later, analysis of the book formed a major part of the thesis I wrote at the end of my degree about the complexities of how female authors write about their mothers in mid to late-twentieth century American literature.
Ten years later, I read again during one of the hardest times in my life when I faced a loss that mirrored in some ways, or at least seemed to at the time, the darkest moments in the book.
And fourteen years later, which brings us to last week, I read it again during the weekend of a family wedding, which is also what closes the book and provides the story it tells with what is in some ways a resolution.
The specifics of why the book speaks to me so much are hard to explain more. I’d have to tell a lot of long stories for which here is not the place. Instead, I want to focus on one detail that I hope gives a sense of what I mean.
I think there’s only one mention of my hometown – London – in Divine Secrets. Sidda gives Vivi a Victorian lachrymatory, a small vial to hold tears, that she bought here. Sidda says that, “in olden days it was one of the greatest gifts you could give someone. It meant you loved them, that you shared a grief that brought you together.”
It’s an example of how something very specific can nevertheless be understood more widely. A lachrymatory is both achingly personal and private, but the experience of bereavement is something all humans have in common.
Whether from Lousiana, London or somewhere else, we all have lachrymatories of some sort from our home towns – they’re very much our own, but they’re also what we all share.