*FINALIST for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction*
*WINNER of the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award*
*WINNER of the 2020 Story Prize*
*WINNER of the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize, Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction*
“Beguiling.” —The New Yorker
“Tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Triumphant.” —Publishers Weekly
“Cheeky, insightful, and irresistible.” —Ms. Magazine
“This collection marks the emergence of a bona fide literary treasure.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Full of lived-in humanity, warmth, and compassion.” —Pittsburgh Current
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.
There is fourteen-year-old Jael, who has a crush on the preacher’s wife. At forty-two, Lyra realizes that her discomfort with her own body stands between her and a new love. As Y2K looms, Caroletta’s “same time next year” arrangement with her childhood best friend is tenuous. A serial mistress lays down the ground rules for her married lovers. In the dark shadows of a hospice parking lot, grieving strangers find comfort in each other.
With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Sometimes piety and passion can be two sides of the same coin. That’s definitely the case with essayist Deesha Philyaw’s first collection of short stories, which examine the steamy secret desires of churchgoing Black women. Things are complicated for all of Philyaw’s characters, from the woman whose seemingly perfect new relationship may collapse because of her nagging anxiety and self-doubt to the schoolteachers who meet annually for covert lesbian trysts. We were struck by the way Philyaw pays tribute to Black church life even as she uses her smart, bone-dry humor to explore the emotional conflicts that can arise between spirituality and sexuality. (Speaking of…the sex scenes in this book are smoking.) Through her remarkable combination of compassion, wit, and quirky style, Philyaw shows us how her characters find happiness and fulfillment in a world full of impossible pressures.
Philyaw's triumphant debut collection follows a series of Southern black women as they struggle for self-determination. In "Eula," 40-year-old Caroletta meets her childhood friend and fellow church member Eula in a motel room to celebrate New Year's Eve. Both single ladies have yet to find what they need from men, and one still considers herself a virgin despite the two of them having had trysts for decades. That night, they preserve a semblance of respectability ("You outdid yourself," Eula tells Caroletta, about a potato salad she'd made), while licking sparkling wine from one another. In "Peach Cobbler," Olivia recounts her mother's affair with a pastor who would come to the house when Olivia was five and whom she equated with God ("God was an old fat man, like a Black Santa, and I imagined my mother's peach cobbler contributing to his girth"). While Philyaw occasionally gets ahead of herself, as in "Jael," about a teenage girl who takes revenge on a 35-year-old sexual predator (the slim story loses power from its multiple point-of-view shifts), for the most part she soars, notably in "How to Make Love to a Physicist," about a woman's liberation from generations of body hatred. Philyaw's stories inform and build on one another, turning her characters' private struggles into a beautiful chorus.
Wow! Just... wow!
Growing up in the church I’ve seen variations of these ladies in differing forms. What Deesha Philyaw accomplishes in each short is stunning. I can honestly say I’ve known some of these ladies and possibly still do. It’s hard to discuss the book without spoiling anything but just know there’s a treat in each story told. There will be some laughter, some tears, and maybe even some anger. Once finished, though, you’re going to want to read again... just like I’m about to do.