With its first collection of short stories, Deesha Philyaw has already received accolades as a notable author and won the 2021 PEN / Faulkner Prize for fiction. Currently, The Secret Life of the Ladies of the Church is in the process of being adapted into a show for HBO. Philyaw has created a memorable and empowering collection depicting nostalgia, sex, grief and human nature.
The stories appear extremely real through specific details and realistic characters. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a piece of non-fiction. The illusion of reality created by Philyaw attracts the reader from the start, providing a memorable reading experience.
With this collection, Philyaw wanted to express the theme of dismantling assumptions and looking beyond the surface to reveal what people really look like outside of public spaces. She succeeds in conveying this theme while leaving the reader with stimulating questions about life and relationships between humans.
Philyaw’s characters are well developed and deeply human. For example, Lyra, from “How to Make Love with a Physicist,” comes to life through her conversational storytelling that keeps the reader engaged and invested in their life.
In these stories, the plot doesn’t matter as much as the characters. The plots of each story allow the reader to spend time with the characters to find a new perspective on life. Notably, the main characters of “Peach Cobbler” and “Jael” both lose their childhood innocence and come of age while surrounded by parental figures and deeply flawed friends.
An important theme, Philyaw frequently portrays the idea of home and nostalgia. For example, the story “Snowfall” was inspired by the harsh winters of Pittsburgh unlike the South. “Snowfall” also reflects the contrast of culture through feelings of displacement. This is especially evident in the protagonist’s longing for the nostalgic comforts of Southern food and her mother knowing that she would never be fully accepted at home due to homophobic cultural norms.
Another interesting theme, Philyaw depicts complex relationships between mothers and daughters. As the main story goes, “When Eddie Levert Comes” centers on a girl taking care of her forgetful old mother while reflecting on the past trauma inflicted by her mother. The darker moments allow Philyaw to explore deeper subjects.
At only 175 pages, this collection is easy and captivating to read. The mix of dark subjects and humorous moments is well balanced. The themes described are important in maintaining the consistency of the collection, however, there may be a bit too much repetition throughout 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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