Every Monday, God arrives at young Olivia’s home and eats peach cobbler at the kitchen table before sneaking off into the bedroom with her mother. In another city, Jael entertains a sexual crush on a preacher’s wife. Meanwhile, Daughter puts her life on hold to care for an aging Mama who anticipates the arrival of Eddie Levert every day. Their stories feature alongside similarly fraught and aching lives in Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. In this debut short story collection, Black women—of varying ages, backgrounds, regions, but all church-going—wrestle with their desires.
The complicated lives of these women begins with “Eula.” On the eve of Y2K, Caroletta prepares to meet her best friend Eula at a hotel. It’s their annual New Year’s Eve ritual: a suite, good eats, and bottles of André Spumante to ring in the new year. Their conversations turn to relationships and love, and both of these 40-year-old women have different ideas about what that means. Eula wants to date to find the husband that God has for her and live in a traditional, Biblical family. For Caroletta, love is whoever and whatever she wants—and that includes Eula, her part-time lover.
The book is a whirlwind of lust, passion, and romance that is bolstered by the power of the writing. Philyaw’s storytelling is direct. Character dialogue is sharp and cuts to the heart of what concerns these Black women the most. In doing so, Philyaw masterfully intertwines social commentary on sexuality and religion. She isn’t content with a clear-cut resolution but instead offers a more nuanced depiction of so many women’s realities. Most of the nine stories in the collection end on this precipice of nuance and unrelenting tension. And it’s fascinating to read how characters settle in this space like in “Not-Daniel,” where grief, marriage, and infidelity collide.
“Peach Cobbler,” arguably the most gripping story, follows the mother-daughter relationship between Olivia and her mother, who prepares a peach cobbler for God every Monday. Olivia soon reveals that it’s not God for whom her mother bakes the cobbler, but her married pastor, who she once believed was the deity until she saw his humanity for what it was—fallible. Olivia’s mother chooses to put all her energy in pleasing and loving this man at the cost of neglecting her daughter, who isn’t allowed to eat the cobbler. Watching her mother make the dessert, Olivia thinks: “I wanted to be those peaches. I longed to be handled by caring hands. And if I couldn’t, I wanted the next best thing: to make something so wonderful with my own hands.”
And while Philyaw does an excellent job of depicting the hypocrisy of church leadership and the misogynoir stemming from the intersection of class, sex, race, and religious belief, this story is really about the fragile relationships between mothers and their children, and how resisting parental neglect, essentially striving for self-love, can often look like rebellion.
“Snowfall” is a gorgeous follow-up to “Peach Cobbler.” It explores belonging and home against the fallout from a frayed mother-daughter relationship. Arletha lives up north with her girlfriend, Rhonda, in a city more accustomed to the winters than they are. It’s a place that offers a welcoming community unavailable to them within the confines of the South’s traditions and hard-hammering religion. Yet, Arletha still misses the South and her mother. A simmering disagreement between Arletha and her partner gives readers the term “mother-privilege.” In the context of the story, it means that Arletha is able to turn to her mother for help while her girlfriend Rhonda cannot. Rhonda’s mother has disowned her because she’s a lesbian. But it’s through a loving twist in the final act that Arletha demonstrates the real power of that privilege.
Philyaw exercises the depth of her criticism and commentary in “How to Make Love to a Physicist.” Here, she takes aim at conversations surrounding religion and science, the tenuous relationships between overbearing Black mothers and daughters, body politics, and fear in dating. Her criticisms flow smoothly with the text while adding much-needed perspectives to the overall social narratives. And the conclusion is one that the reader will thoroughly—and joyfully—embrace.
Much of the underlying discourse in the story collection revolves around how Black girls and women view sex and experience pleasure, and how those fall in line with the church at-large. It’s not about placing judgment on these characters but understanding their desire—and right—to be free. As Caroletta puts it so succinctly as she debates her friend-and-sometimes-lover in “Eula”: “Do you think God wants you, or anybody, to go untouched for decades and decades? For their whole lives?”
Caroletta implores Eula to look beyond the rules that have been handed down to her by men and women before them. Readers will get the sense that Philyaw is speaking to us directly here. And if we don’t catch the hint, it appears with urgency again as other Black women begin to recognize how they’ve been unable to love their bodies and enjoy their lives because of rules imposed on them. Ever aware of how to wield her text, Philyaw has a comeback for these attempts to be unshackled. When these young Black women don’t meet the expectations placed upon them, the church rears its head again, and they are chastised with some version of Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
The stories in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies speak volumes about the restrictions placed on Black women, their sexuality, and their bodies. Often times, the church serves as a crucible to break them rather than heal them. Whether a churchgoing woman or not, a reader will find a familiarity in these stories that resonates deeply. Philyaw’s collection is made all the more powerful by her ability to paint the complexities of women in their full glory.