“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw

I like the cover of this book, but because of the title, I avoided picking it up because I assumed it would be a nonfiction book about churchgoing women. Although I am spiritual, I’m not a fan of church communities, so I avoided this book until I couldn’t.

A local book club selected it for its January read, and that’s when I learned that it’s a book of short stories. At first I borrowed the audiobook, narrated by Janina Edwards, from the library. Edwards’s voice was so mellow and soothing and just a treat for my ears. But I quickly realized that this book is one I’d need to physically read so I can pay close attention the prose as well. I was already impressed.

I decided that when I’m ready to reread this book, I’ll certainly pick up the audio version to hear Edwards’s voice again. But to get on with reading the book for the book club, I borrowed a copy from a friend and quickly got swept up in the stories about Black women and their experiences.

Genre

Contemporary; Literary

Series

n/a

Pubbed

2020

Goodreads summary

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. (Goodreads)

My thoughts

My assumption about this book — that it’s nonfiction about churchgoing ladies — was wrong but not too far off. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a book of nine short stories all of which center on Black female protagonists exploring their sexuality and coming to terms with who they are despite the influence of their upbringing, which is often religious.

The collection is only 175-pages long, so the stories are all quick reads. The often-snarky tone throughout made the stories compelling and closely fits the protagonists, who are often breaking out of a box society has placed them in or are observing someone trying to restrict them in some way and are realizing, claiming, and working toward who it is they truly want to be.

The stories touch on a variety of topics such as the limitations foisted on these women and girls due to their religious upbringing; relationships — many of them are about mother-daughter relationships; grief; and sexuality — especially the limitations placed on same-sex relationships and couples. Of the nine stories, I liked the following the most:

“Eula,” the first in the collection and one of its strongest. I believe the narrator is unnamed. It’s about a woman meeting up with her lover, Eula, in a hotel to ring in the new year together. I like that the protagonist and Eula are foils of each other showing how their regard for their church/religion has affected their lives: Eula abiding by its strictures and restricting her life because of them; the narrator acknowledging its strictures but living freely despite them.

In “Dear Sister,” a woman is writing a letter to a sister she has never met to inform her that their father has passed. The woman (I forgot her name) grew up with three sisters, all of whom share the same father, who wasn’t very present in their lives. The story explores how the father’s absence affected the women and how great a presence their grandmother has in their lives. I love the sisters’ personalities and their grandmother’s “fishy dreams.” I also love how supportive the sisters are for each other, even Tasheta and Renee who often don’t get along.

“How to Make Love to a Physicist” is my favorite. It’s about an artist who meets a physicist at a conference and struggles with her confidence and anxiety as she gets to know him and enter into a relationship with him. A major reason why I love this one is because of its structure and flow, which makes me think of a poem. It was heartwarming, and I love how it ends:

“How do you make love to a physicist? With your whole self, quivering, lush, unafraid.”

“Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” is basically an instruction manual a woman provides to the married men she has affairs with. I love the snarky tone in it. The narrator strips these men of everything — clothes, shoes, pride, dignity — in this instruction manual.

Overall: ★★★★☆

I initially gave it 3 stars, but the more I thought about the collection, the more I liked it and realized how great it is, so I pumped it up by a star. I struggled to write my review above because it was hard to put my feelings about this one into words, but it is a good read about the lives of Black women that is sure to entertain with its snarky tone while leaving you with lots to mull over because of the topics it touches on and the situations the characters face. I highly recommend it.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

I borrowed it, but I think it’s worth owning a copy.

Quotes from the book

“All of this cemented my understanding of God as a twisted puppet master watching his creations bounce around, trapped and tangled up in tragedies for his amusement.”

14 thoughts on ““The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw

  1. Oh, this sounds kind of interesting as an anthology. And it sounds like they were somewhat consistently good too which is always a treat in a collection of shorts. Glad you enjoyed this one and was able to pick it up after all!

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  2. This is something outside of what I normally pick up but I am really intrigued by your discussion on it. I love that you really enjoyed the audio because I definitely prefer that format for books outside of my comfort zone. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for this one. Great review!

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  3. It’s always great when a book we initially overlooked ends up working for us. And I think I know where you’re coming from changing your rating. It’s funny how a little time can change our view of something when we realize how our minds keep coming back to it.

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    1. Yup, there are many times when I end up changing my rating after reviewing the book, sometimes it increases and other times it decreases. The reflection on what I read makes me realize how much I liked it or how much I didn’t, lol. I think that rest period between finishing the book and the reviewing it is needed… if you’re a reviewer/book blogger.

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  4. I don’t usually go for short stories but it sounds like that style worked really effectively for these. I really like the premise of this. I’m glad it was better than you were first anticipating as well. Great review!

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