[REVIEW] The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw

(Buy it from Bookshop)

sigh I don’t think this collection of short stories was meant for me, y’all. I wanted it to be. Nine stories about Black women and their connections to themselves and the church seemed right up my alley, and I was genuinely excited to get into this and see myself and my folks on the page. But this didn’t quite hit the mark for me and I’m a little sad about it.

Before I say anything else, I do want to note that parts of this are brilliant. “How To Make Love To A Physicist” is beautiful, redemptive, romantic and joyful. “Jael” uses an unexpected biblical namesake to deliver a truly surprising, slightly creepy story that also made me throw back my head and laugh hard at one point. “Instructions For Married Christian Husbands” is snarky and clever and fun.

The other six stories, though, left me with a pervasive sense of “that’s it?” Reviews and the author herself promised a collection of joy and self-identification. I found a lot of it trite and trope-ish instead. Aggrieved light-skinned country mothers having affairs with married church men who neglect their dark-skinned, insecure daughters seem to be a running theme in over half the stories and c’mon now–are we still doing that? What year is it? Men are worshipped as gods, despite being remarkably unlikable and unpleasant in nearly all their appearances. Queer women are well-represented, but in perpetually dysfunctional, emotionally stunted ways. Also there’s a surprising lack of breadth of perspective too–none of the stories are from the perspective of a female pastor, a first lady, or someone who is at all grounded, progressive or agencied in their faith or even their life. Church functions as a bland stand-in for misogynoir in these stories and while that’s valid, it wasn’t presented with enough depth or scope outside of the worst of church for me. I didn’t really see myself or any of the other Black women I know–churched or unchurched–reflected in most of these stories, only sad, mulish caricatures. I expected more inner life, more surprises, and more types of women.

I’m not saying I only want to read happy stories of Black women, or that I want all of my story protagonists to be emotionally well-adjusted and forward thinking. The world is a complex place full of complex people, most of whom are bound by society and addicted to struggle. These are meant to be real stories of real(ish) people, and I recognize that. However–they aren’t real enough, for me. I can’t connect with these lumpish, stereotypical women. They’re blandly, one-dimensionally oppressed even without the overt presence of whiteness in the book and it bores me. The overarching influence of the church and the experience of Blackness is presented in a uniform shade of sexually repressed, socially-stultifying. self-limiting gray rather than being presented as the complex, colorful institution that it is in reality.

The three stories I mentioned are great. The rest–sorry, but meh.

Three stars and a vial of anointing oil to these Church Ladies and their sad, unsatisfying lives.

(I know this book is beloved and award-winning, fellow readers but it just didn’t do it for me. If you want to give it a try or take a look at other books about Black women, check out the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. Friendly reminder–this site has affiliate relationships with Bookshop and other partners, and any click-throughs and purchases may result in a commission being earned. Peace!)


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