A lady looks at the right at the book title 'The Secret Lives of Church Ladies'

Complex Character and Challenging the Norm in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

There is homophobia, violence, sexual content, and other issues mentioned in this book that may be triggering for some readers.

Careful you go looking for something, you just might find it.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a debut short story collection by Deesha Philyaw. The book features nine stories about black ladies, young and old, who embrace their desires courageously, challenging the church and religious beliefs.

Sometimes short story collections contain stories that are obviously meant to be the main feature of the book, with the other stories in the collection pale in comparison. This can understandably detract from the reading experience, especially if the “main feature” appears very early on in the book. This doesn’t happen in this book, which is cohesive and absorbing throughout.

Although it is told in first-person narrative, this book has none of the awkwardness of some YA novels where the protagonist is too acutely aware that they are the narrator, so it ends up with them stating their feelings and the reasons behind these feelings. This tends to destroy any of the mood built up from the plot development, which can make the protagonist a chore to read about. In this book, the tone is conversational. It’s casual so it feels as if the reader is sitting right there with the ladies, listening to them as they share their secrets, joys, and sorrows. It’s also intimate, so the reader is also partly omniscient, capable of watching the events unfold and getting a better grasp of what is going on compared to the characters, but not being able to do anything to help.

In an illuminating PEN America interview with the author, the author mentioned that “My fiction is my attempt to tell the truth about my life and the lives of women and girls who look like me, who struggle to get free of the same things I’ve struggled to free myself from, who seek after our own pleasure and satisfaction in a world that tells us we should be content with something less—something different than what we long for.” I believe that The Secret Lives of Church Ladies lives up to the author’s attempt as the stories delve into the lives of the different characters, who all have glorious and complex personalities and values so that the humanity of the characters truly shines through.

One of the things I liked best in the book were the descriptions of cheerful domestic life, of the saltiness of crabs bubbling in a pot filling the air, watching TV together while linking hands with the elders of the family, and so on. The descriptions were comforting and sparked a good bout of nostalgia. Although I don’t share the same experiences as the ladies in the book, the nostalgia of remembering good childhood memories may be a mutual feeling.

Because he was a man who took without giving, he left us nothing to grieve.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book. It reveals the bittersweetness of life and love, the comfort of the soft moments and the harshness of rejection and other difficult aspects of life told from the perspectives of black women and girls. Reading this book was frankly an intriguing experience, and I’d highly recommend it.

A small side note: Out of the nine stories included, two are even connected to each other (prequel and sequel) but can also be read as standalones, which is a little thing to note about, but it was a delight for me (you know, those “ooh, that interesting!” moments).

There is an TV adaptation of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies coming up, but I’d highly recommend reading the book first! (You can read one of the stories included in the book here: How to Make Love to a Physicist)

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies book cover

Received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Netgalley, Pushkin Press and Deesha Philyaw for the chance to read and review this ARC!

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