“I don’t question God,” declares the titular character of “Eulah,” the first story in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.
“But maybe you should question the people who taught you this version of God. Because it’s not doing you any favors,” the narrator replies.
This exchange is at the crux of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection. The collection is full of hope, heartbreak, hunger, and love. Its protagonists find themselves torn between the demands of church and family and those of their own bodies. They wrestle with their appetites, illicit or otherwise, and usually come out on top in one way or another.
The nine stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies span a wide array of turbulent and fascinating relationships with mothers, fathers, sisters, and lovers. In “Dear Sister,” a woman writes a letter to the half-sister she’s never met to inform her of the death of their father. In “Snowfall,” the narrator struggles to adjust to both the realities of living in a northern climate and her mother’s disavowal of her relationship with another woman.
Despite these tumultuous relationships, the stories are full of comfort—offered from sister to sister, daughter to mother, and lover to lover. These offerings are often in the form of food, whether it be homemade, fast-food, or frozen.
One of the collection’s most powerful stories, for example, is “Peach Cobbler,” which begins: “My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife.” Like many in the collection, “Peach Cobbler” deals with infidelity, unhealthy relationships, and the ache to be loved with wry humor and compassion.
Each story is told in the first-person, lending the collection a powerful intimacy. The reader is left feeling as though they really have been let in on the secret lives of these powerful storytellers. In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Philyaw paints nuanced portraits of vulnerable and resilient women who rely upon each other and create communities worth treasuring.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is available now at the Literatures and Languages Library.