top of page

Book Review: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

Short Review: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw’s fictional debut, is a powerful, gritty, and enduring collection of stories. She uses only black females, young and old, as the main narrators and characters in her stories, and she explores their sexuality, faith, contradictory lifestyles, racial reckonings, and their internal struggles to figure out who they really are in order to craft a soul-searching and ultimately uplifting message throughout all nine stories. Highly recommended.

Long Review: Short story collections are oftentimes not at the top of readers’ lists. For various reasons over the past fifty years, if your name isn’t Stephen King, most collections don’t sell very well. Sure, a couple of them get nominated every year for the National Book Awards and other literary prizes, such as Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson in 2015 or Florida by Lauren Groff in 2018, and some even win the prize (Fortune Smiles), but how many people can tell me that they’ve read either of those two collections or any other recent ones? Short stories, and the collections that contain them, are in danger of slowly going the way of the buffalo, and, without discovering new authors that can infuse life and energy back into them, they will soon be relegated to the pages of literary journals and undergraduate creative writing classrooms and rarely anywhere else.

Enter Deesha Philyaw. Born in Jacksonville, FL and now residing in Pittsburgh, PA with her daughters, Philyaw is that fresh new voice that the short story world so desperately needs right now, and she couldn’t have arrived at a more crucial time. Philyaw, an author and former Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and Pushcart Prize nominee, as well as a freelance writer, workshop director, and public speaker, got her undergraduate degree from Yale University in economics. Normally, economics majors don’t have any vested interest in writing or reading fiction, but Philyaw was different--when not taking the required courses for her undergrad degree, she filled her class schedule with classes on African-American studies, women’s studies, and ‘history classes that did not center around white men.’ Taking such diverse and different classes from the subject of economics provided her with a completely different worldview from many of her peers, and that eventually morphed into a love for reading and writing both fiction and essays about many subjects. Writing on such topics as the suppression of African-Americans throughout American history and her experience as a black woman at Yale, where the vast majority of the student body is white, eventually brought her some much-deserved attention from the literary world, and she started having works published in major publications over the years, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mcsweeney’s, The Rumpus, and many others, while also having her essays included as ‘Notable’ in the distinguished Best American Essays series over the course of multiple years.

Still, at the same time, she wasn’t well known in the literary fiction world. Nothing could prove that point more than the fact that The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her fiction debut, was published by a small academic press (West Virginia University Press) most notably known for publishing nonfiction books that focus on the Appalachia region and its people and environment. How this occurred is something that I don’t understand, and it works out to the press’s advantage--it’s a well-documented fact that books nominated for the National Book Award (as TSLOCL was this year) receive a significant bump in sales, and there is little doubt that TSLOCL will be any different. The stories inside this collection are so rich, so well-constructed, so real and better than so many other stories that fill the collections published by major publishers, such as HarperCollins, Scribner, and Penguin Random House, that one has to stop for a moment and seriously wonder why a major press didn’t pick it up. But, we aren’t here to dwell on the ‘what ifs’ and the mistakes of big publishers in the literary world--let us focus on the work itself instead.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Philyaw’s fictional debut, is a masterpiece in short story writing. Composed of nine short stories, they are alternately rough but beautiful, short but dense, and lofty but grounded in reality. The prose style that Philyaw uses is also dazzling, switching between dialect and non-dialect between the various stories, and you feel like you’re actually in the head of these women in each story. And that’s another thing--all of the narrators in each story are black women, something that is rare in today’s world of short fiction. Philyaw makes all of these women, whether a young teenager like in the story “Peach Cobbler” or an elderly woman like in “Jael,” headstrong, smart, and determined. Instead of dwelling on how awful a lot of these women’s lives are, or the fact that America discriminates against them every day in every way, Philyaw refuses to dwell on the misery and instead shows how these characters not only persevere through their daily troubles, but come out on the other side smarter and even stronger because of them. Not all of the stories have happy endings, as in the aforementioned “Peach Cobbler,” but they are all powerful, showing the enduring power of the humanity that black women in America have day in and day out.

The first story in the collection, ‘Eula,’ takes place at a motel on New Year’s Eve 1999, and is easily one of the best stories of the nine included in TSLOCL. The main plot of the story is simple--two women, both of them black, one probably closeted lesbian/bi and the other fully aware of her sexuality, meet together every New Years to share a sexual rendezvous and celebrate another year alive. The story, which runs over the course of eleven pages, is not much more than that on the surface--it’s mostly a conversation between the two women, one of them trying to get the other to see her true self, and it ends with them going to bed once more. But underneath the surface is where the power of the story lies, and it’s a fascinating one at that. By having one of her characters so conflicted with who she really is (Eula, despite being in her forties, believes she will one day find a husband and the ‘sinning’ she is doing by sleeping with her female friend will be washed from her ‘religious record’), Philyaw forces readers to examine the contradictions and flaws in religious rules that state how people must live their lives. Eula is horrified when she discovers that the narrator has already slept with men before despite the fact that they are both unmarried, something that is strictly forbidden according to their Christian religion, and she descends into a puddle of sadness and confusion, her world falling down around her as she realizes her friend hasn’t been ‘chaste’ like her. But, the narrator notes to Eula, is what they’ve been doing not considered the same thing? Just because they are two women, it’s not the same as a man and woman being together? The story ends with the two reconciling and being together again, but the point of the story is well served without being explicitly stated by Philyaw, and she shows stunningly the contradictions between faith in today’s world and how people really live their lives instead, even if they don’t admit to themselves who they really are.

Other stories touch on similar subjects, such as the contradiction of faith, words, and power and the accompanying abuse that those in power often wield, both literal and metaphorical (‘Peach Cobbler’), grappling and struggling to find a sense of self-identity (‘Snowfall’), and the struggle between generations in terms of what is important in the world today versus yesterday and how the appreciation or lack thereof can rip families apart (‘When Eddie Levert Comes’). ‘Peach Cobbler,’ the most powerful story in the book in my opinion, is a study of a pastor who says one thing in the pulpit and another in his private life, and it explores how his contradicting faith and lifestyle directly affects the daily life of a young girl whose mother sees the pastor on the side when he steps out on his wife, and her enrapture with said pastor’s son when she is forced to tutor him. It’s a captivating study on family dynamics and the hypocrisy of some in powerful positions of faith, and it ends on a realistic, if depressing, note.

Two other stories, ‘How to Make Love to a Physicist’ and ‘Instructions for Married Christian Husbands,’ are formatted in unique and different ways from normal short stories. Instead of presenting the story as is in a ‘normal’ format, the stories are put on in the way of instructions. In the former story, the narrator tells her readers about how she became close with the physicist from the title, and she writes it as if she is typing out long instructions on how to do the same, the instructions in a narrative format that one could follow if one wants to do the same. In the latter story, it is more a list of ‘what to do’ for the married men who see the female narrator of the story outside their marriage. Flipping the usual adultery story on its head, where the woman is the evil one in such a situation and a homewrecker, the story features a strong, determined, and powerful woman who knows what she wants and what she will demand from the men who cheat with her. While not explicitly condoning adultery, it forces readers to think about the act in a new light, turning the common tale of the man being the innocent party in such situations and showing instead the empowerment that some women can get out of such an arrangement, morals or reasons be damned. Both stories are unique and insightful, and they flew by for me while I was reading them.

The one misfire in the collection for me was ‘Not-Daniel,’ a story about two lovers who find themselves together while their parents are dying in a hospice center, and it just didn’t have enough substance for me to really enjoy it. It was more of a sketch than a story at only five pages long, and I wish it had been fleshed out more.

The story that comes directly after that, ‘Dear Sister,’ a tale in the form of a letter to a recently-discovered sister, and a later story, ‘Jael,’ a story written in the format of journal entries and internal introspection, more than make up for the small misfire that ‘Not-Daniel’ is. ‘Dear Sister’ is an exploration of black family dynamics, with the man at the center of it being the screw-up father that somehow binds all the family members in the story together despite his abhorrent lifestyle, and ‘Jael’ is an exploration of the generational, sexual, and faith-based differences between a grandmother and her granddaughter, with the grandmother finding the younger one’s diary underneath her mattress one day and being horrified at its contents. While she completely disagrees with her granddaughter’s decisions and lifestyles, events occur throughout the story that finds her protecting her granddaughter by the end, and it’s a case study on how to sometimes set your rigid faith-based principles aside when you need to protect family from outside harm.

Overall, this was an astounding collection of stories. The fact that this is Philyaw’s first collection is flooring, and I cannot wait to see what she produces in the future. She ended up losing the National Book Award to another author (Charles Yu for Interior Chinatown), but this collection is hands down one of the best, if not the best, short story collection I’ve read in years. Between her narrators, all of them black women with something that they are both proud and ashamed of, whether that’s their sexuality or strong faith or sense of home, and the unique style and situations of all these stories, this should become a modern-day classic taught in high school and college classrooms throughout the U.S.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

19 views0 comments


bottom of page