Say that to a guy and he’s likely to think that you’re doing a pretty bad job of impersonating a U.S. Army Ranger.
Say it to most women and they’ll definitely know what you mean. In fact, one word over all others will jump into her head.
As in Rebecca Wells’ novel “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” which just happens to be the August selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Thanks both to the book, which was published in paperback in 1996, and the movie, which came out in 2002 (starring Sandra Bullock and Ellen Burstyn), Wells’ study of mother-daughter relations has become a literary icon of pop culture. It’s funny and touching and serious all at once, which is a formula that other writers — Anne Tyler and Fannie Flagg come to mind — also have used to write best-selling novels.
At its essence, “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is the story of two women with strong wills: critically acclaimed, 40-something Broadway director Siddalee Walker and her pushing-70 mother Vivi. Still resentful about her painful childhood, Sidda, is lulled into revealing more than she normally would have by overly friendly New York Times reporter. She responds to a question by calling her mother, among other things, a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Vivi’s response is to disown her daughter, threaten a libel suit and command her friends to never speak to Siddalee again.
This, though, is just the beginning. Shaken by what happened, Sidda postpones her about-to-happen wedding and secludes herself in a remote cabin on the Olympic Peninsula. It is Vivi’s friends who, ultimately, share with Sidda her mother’s scrapbook, which reveals the mother she never knew — an unconventional woman whose natural sense of joy was muted, sometimes shattered, by the shadows that pursued her.
The novel bounces back and forth between present and past, allowing Sidda both the chance to better understand her mother and why, as her mother charges, all her own relationships have tended to fall apart.
The book, Wells’ second, attracted a number of positive reviews.
The Washington Post described it as “A very entertaining and, ultimately, deeply moving novel about the complex bonds between mother and daughter.”
The New Orleans Times-Picayune offered that, “Wells' voice is uniquely her own, funny and generous and full of love and heartbreak, in that grand Louisiana literary tradition of transforming family secrets into great stories.”
Closer to home, the Portland Oregonian termed the book, “an insightful, delicious novel.”
It’s only natural that the Oregonian should address the book, since Wells, despite being born and growing up in central Louisiana, has lived in the Northwest since 1982 (now on Bainbridge Island.)
Trained in the theater, Wells is the author of several plays, including her one-woman show “Splittin’ Hairs.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer even referred to her play “Gloria Duplex” as “one of the glories of the decade.”
She has appeared in a number of Seattle-area plays, as well as even appearing once with Spokane’s Interplayers Ensemble, and she refers to the act of creation as a near-mystical experience.
“I live in an actor’s body, in which the cultivation of sense memory, active listening, and the belief that the sublime can arise out of the most common character, word or gesture is something of a religion for me,” she once said.
Wells turned to fiction and in 1992 her first novel, “Little Altars Everywhere,” was published to reviews such as “a brilliant piece of work” (Seattle Times) and “a gem of a book” (Denver Post). The novel ended up winning the Western States Book Award.
Some people, then, are drawn to literature. Others are born to it.
Wells is a bit of both.
As writer Andrew Ward says, “Some writers have all the luck. Not only did Rebecca Wells get to be Catholic, she also got to come from Louisiana. This means that half of her is conversant with the Mystery, and the other half is crazy.”
Which is something that Wells herself might agree with. As she told the literary journal BookPage, “(A)s Einstein said, the heart of the best art and the best science is mystery. That unexplainable core.”
To which there’s only one thing to add.