‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’: a review

Julia Croston, Government Reporter

With her debut short story collection, Deesha Philyaw has already received praise as a notable author and won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Currently, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is being adapted into a show for HBO. Philyaw created a memorable, thought-provoking collection portraying nostalgia, sex, grief, and human nature. 

The stories feel extremely real through specific detail and realistic characters. At times, it felt like reading a work of nonfiction. The reality illusion Philyaw creates pulls the reader in from the beginning providing a memorable reading experience. 

‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’ by Deesha Philyaw stands against a stack of books. (Julia Croston)

With this collection, Philyaw wanted to express the theme of dismantling assumptions and looking beyond the surface to reveal what people are truly like outside of public spaces. She finds success in conveying this theme while leaving the reader with thought-provoking questions about life and how humans relate to each other. 

Philyaw’s characters are well developed and deeply human. For example, Lyra, from “How to Make Love to a Physicist”, comes to life through her conversational narration keeping the reader engaged and invested in her life. 

In these stories, the plot does not matter nearly as much as the characters. The plots of each story allow the reader to spend time with the characters finding a new perspective on life. Notably, the main characters from “Peach Cobbler” and “Jael” both lose their childhood innocence and come of age while being surrounded by deeply flawed parental figures and friends. 

A prominent theme, Philyaw frequently portrays the idea of home and nostalgia. For example, the story “Snowfall” was inspired by the harsh winters of Pittsburgh in contrast to the South. “Snowfall” also reflects the contrast of culture through feelings of displacement. This is especially apparent in the protagonist’s longing for the nostalgic comforts of Southern food and her mother while knowing she would never be fully accepted at home due to homophobic cultural norms. 

‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’ by Deesha Philyaw lays against a wooden table. (Julia Croston)

Another interesting theme, Philyaw portrays complex relationships between mothers and daughters. As the main story conveys this, “When Eddie Levert Comes” focuses on a daughter taking care of her old, forgetful mother while reflecting on the past trauma inflicted by her mother. The darker moments allow Philyaw to explore deeper topics. 

With only 175 pages, this collection is easy and captivating to read. The mix of dark topics and humorous moments are well balanced. The themes portrayed are important in keeping the collection consistent, however, there may be slightly too much repetition through this. It will be interesting to see what Philyaw writes next. 

Spinnaker rates this novel 4.5 out of 5 Spinnaker Sails.


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