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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

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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. With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.

179 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 2020

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About the author

Deesha Philyaw

13 books842 followers
Deesha Philyaw's collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in Sept. 1, 2020. Deesha is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Apogee Journal, Catapult, Cheat River Review, TueNight, ESPN’s The Undefeated and The Baltimore Review; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. Deesha is a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,399 reviews
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 117 books156k followers
August 29, 2020
These are wonderful stories. I love the focus on black women and their inner and outer lives. Philyaw’s voice is distinct and textured. The stories are beautifully crafted. A lovely collection.
Profile Image for Reggie.
115 reviews374 followers
January 5, 2021
Society places a lot of pressure on ladies. Perhaps more so when these ladies are of the Church. The women who are often backbones of their communities, but afterthoughts when it comes time to celebrate, pay homage, or honor. The grace that these women walk on requires much effort since said line so thin. So thin that a lot of women fall off of it.

There are several women, however, who leap from that thin line of grace out to freedom in Deesha Philyaw's stunning first collection of stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Women (& girls) who for better or worse, know exactly who they are & refuse to give even a penny less.

We are welcomed to this collection by Caroletta, narrator of EULA. Caroletta knows exactly who she is; A woman who in love who should be in a longstanding relationship, but her supposed partner, Eula, is playing. Caroletta knows the men they have been entertaining all these years ain't shit & knows that time would no longer be wasted if Eula would just quit trying to float along that thin line of grace.

You jump a little further into the collection & you'll see Tasheta from DEAR SISTER. A woman who fully acknowledges that her father of her "broken family" who recently passed away wasn't shit, even with her sister Renee still trying to walk along that thin line of grace while carrying her their deceased father's legacy on her shoulders.

Whether it's Jael from JAEL, Olivia from PEACH COBBLER, Leelee & Rhonda from SNOWFALL or even Lyra from HOW TO MAKE LOVE TO A PHYSICIST, it's different & stimulating versions of Women who have leapt to freedom who are either trying to convince other women to leap with them or who are at odds against the women who continue to walk this thin line. With its false sense of hope awaiting them at the end of it.

Besides the journey along this line you are going to see themes of religion, sexuality, body positivity, infidelity, colorism, sexism, feminism & the sometimes rocky relationship between women of families + many more in these 9 stories.

These 9 stories, full of nothing but Black characters, does the two things it wants its readers to do.

Stop walking that thin line of grace & leap to freedom.


@ablackmanreading (Instagram) and I do IG Lives every Sunday.

We spent two Sundays discussing Deesha Philyaw's awesome short story collection.

Here is a link to Part 1 of our Discussion:
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
776 reviews5,363 followers
February 13, 2023
In that moment, I understood how enough desire could drown you, take you all the way under.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a shining star. Like the mother’s singing voice in the final story, this collection is ‘strong and certain’ and Philyaw commands language with such ease and grace to map the difficult terrains of life and navigate her characters around them. These stories are lush with desire—both repressed or sated thirsts—rich in insight and sharp in criticism of social or institutional standards that hold Black women down.

My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife,’ opens the story Peach Cobbler, a standout of the collection featuring a girl coming of age and faced with the infidelities of her mother and their preacher, and a ripe example of Philyaw’s excellence in tone and aim—and frequent and effective use of food in the stories. For God is everywhere in these stories, or at least those who use God to enforce their ideas of polite society on others. Each story is overflowing with guilt of ‘how something can feel right and wrong at the same time,’ with characters simply wanting to occupy their own sexuality and desires but made to feel lesser than for them. This is particularly true in the multiple stories featuring lesbian relationships, such as in Snowfall. This story that starts with a young couple begrudgingly shoveling snow having moved to the midwest from Florida captured my heart as I myself had been shoveling snow moments before reading it and is one of the most tender stories in the collection despite the shadow of abandonment from mothers due to being in a relationship with another woman.

There’s an old saying: mothers raise their daughters and love their sons.

The relationship between women and their mothers are also at the center of this collection,usually fraught with familial tension and often with the daughters being caregivers to their aging mothers such as in Not-Daniel and When Eddie Levert Comes’ The latter is especially effective as the daughter is merely called Daughter despite each other character having a name.
Daughter. Housekeeper. Cook. Babysitter. Nurse. Slave. That’s what she felt like…Meanwhile her brothers Rico and Bruce had been called by their given names and did only what they pleased.

These stories are a heartbreaking investigation into family and love, with characters that ‘understood how your heart was still connected to your mama, even if she hurt you sometimes.’ Philyaw also addresses generational trauma, most notably in Jael, where the teenage girl’s diary passages are interspersed with reflections and fears from her great-grandmother who is raising her in the absence left by the death of the middle two generations and is surreptitiously reading Jael’s diary. The story, which makes good on the reference to the Biblical Jael, shows generational divides on social issues, particularly Jael’s queerness, and the hypocricy of obdurate religious expectations. For if God has a plan for everything and makes everyone in his image, Philyaw asks us can Jael truly be an ‘abomination’ with a ‘reprobate mind’?

I don’t care about dicks or being saved.

The combination of social stigmas, judgemental mothers and the Church all coalesce to make the women in these stories feel Othered or unable to comfortably occupy their own bodies. This is best detailed when a character has been made to wear a girdle her whole life by her mother, who finds it blasphemous when she arrives at church without one on after trying to learn to love herself in therapy sessions. The coached shame of ones body extends to their shame over sexuality or even feeling they are deserving of anything, much less love. The opening story, Eula, directly confronts the ways the Church’s insistence on purity is emotionally damaging. In it, two lifelong friends spend the last night of the 20th century together in a hotel and confront their sporadic sexual encounters with one another. Caroletta is hurt that Eula won’t admit her feelings and carries on in loveless relationships with men because she feels she must and because the Church sees their relations as unatural.
’The Bible is the inerrant word of God,' Eula whispers, as defiantly as a whisper can be.
'And you only believe that because of how another group of men interpret the first group of men. People say you're supposed to put your faith in God, not men.’

Philyaw shows the Church as another extension of patriarchy oppressing women as well as a too-rigid institution that shames people into compliance. This is echoed in How to Make Love to a Physicist as well:
’Even Einstein wasn’t an atheist,” he says. “He talked about God all the time. Now, he didn’t believe in a god that was concerned with human behavior, which is the church’s obsession and the reason it uses guilt and shame to enforce Christianity.’

Many of the women turn their backs on the Church in these stories for this very reason. And it is shown to be often hypocritical and shallow, such as when Daughter watches all the church ladies abandon their mother after she converts. ‘They had led the poor unwed mother of three to the Living Water, as church folk referred to Jesus. But she wasn’t their kind of people.

Throughout these stories we constantly watch women be good caregivers, good lovers, good people with gifts to share, and see them be squandered by a patriarchal society. ‘Because he was a man who took without giving, he left us nothing to grieve,’ one narrator remarks. There are affairs with no thought to the women they will hurt, men who beat their wives to death in front of their infant children, or, as in Jael predatory men who even at the age of 35 prey on 15 year old girls. Philyaw pulls a reversal on the power dynamic in Instructions for Married Christian Husbands, a story sharp with satirical wit as a woman lays out her unbreakable rules for ‘the infantilized husbands of accomplished godly women’ she sleeps with purely for pleasure and power. It is a fresh burst in the collection along with the rather adorable slow burn romance in Physicist.

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.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a marvelous collection, a tight collection of short stories that all move in rhythm to perfectly tuned themes that make each story inform upon each other. It is a bold and beautiful look at the lives of Black women, at queerness, at earnest desires and a tender message to love oneself. I will read anything Deesha Philyaw writes, this is a literary gem that I hope lasts a long time in the public consciousness.


Don't ask me to repent because I regret nothing. You can't save me because I'm not in peril.
Profile Image for Read In Colour.
282 reviews440 followers
August 13, 2020

*taps 🎙️* Is this thing on? Yes? Ok. Let me introduce you to your new favorite author - Deesha Philyaw. Deesha isn't a new author, she's been writing for a minute, but what she does in The Secret Lives is something special. She flips the script and portrays "good church girls" as the real women and girls they are, not some perfect beings who worship at the altar 24/7 and never let their slip show.

The Secret Lives is not non-fiction, and I feel like that needs to be emphasized before it's tosssed aside as such. This is a collection of nine short stories that explore a variety of experiences in the lives of women. From the great-grandmother who frets over whether it makes more sense to keep her 14 year old granddaughter home from church so she can't openly lust over the first lady of the church or if she should send her to Sunday School in hopes that she'll have the sin knocked out of her to the daughter of a dying woman who seeks relief with a stranger in a parking lot; from a girl who lives her mother's shame as a preacher's mistress to a woman who has strict instructions for her married lovers — Philyaw brings the reality of these women's lives to our attention and shines a light on those subtle nuances that we tend to overlook.

Within these pages, you're sure to find a woman or girl whom you connect with, I know I did.
Profile Image for Candi.
607 reviews4,585 followers
April 10, 2022
4.5 stars

Warning: Do NOT open this book on an empty stomach!! The descriptions of food, peach cobbler in particular, will make you drool like a baby. DO open this book when you want to read a very robust collection of short stories full of strong and independent women. These are women that walk their own path, not the road others have paved for them. There are battles between their desires and those obstacles that get in the way more often than not. Judgments are passed on them through the conservatism of their church, but also by their families and society at large. They wage inner wars with their own consciences at times, too.

“Sick with desire. The words took shape in my mind, black and slick like oil, rising from the page of a trashy novel I’d gotten from the grocery store the week before. In that moment, I understood how enough desire could drown you, take you all the way under.”

The stories are all very poignant, sometimes laced with heartache, sometimes with humor. The connections between these women and their lovers, their mothers, and their siblings are explored so intimately, without a single wasted word. These relationships are never simple. Are they ever?! I loved the complexity of their thoughts, the turmoil, and the yearnings. Some of these “church ladies” are grieving; others are full of anger, perhaps even vengeful. They may miss home, their mothers, or other loved ones. They are all linked together by their love, determination and courage.

“But what we really miss are the laughter and embrace of our mothers and grandmothers and aunties, kin and not kin… We miss how they laughed and were easy with each other. How their friendships lasted lifetimes, outlasting wayward husbands and ungrateful children.”

The men in these stories aren’t painted with the rosiest of colors - this is quite clearly a feminist collection for the most part. However, they aren’t all bullies and deadbeats either. You’ll find a couple of upstanding men that you will champion, like the young man who seeks relief from the constant worry of a dying mother. Or the physicist who has a bottomless well of patience. And if anyone had walked into the break room at precisely the right moment, he or she would have heard me snicker thanks to “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands.”

“If guilt gets the best of you, do no attempt to witness to me or invite me to church. Don’t ask me to repent, because I regret nothing. You can’t save me, because I’m not in peril.”

Once again, I’ve gotten pretty damn lucky with my choice of short story collections. I can’t say there was a poorly written story in the bunch. A few will stick with me for a long time. As soon as I finished reading the piece titled “How to Make Love to a Physicist”, I read it all over again – it was that good! And I won’t ever forget “God”, a neglected little girl growing up and smartening up, and a really gratifying slice of “Peach Cobbler”. I’m still licking my fingers, two weeks later.

“My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife.”
Profile Image for Julie G .
869 reviews2,679 followers
March 17, 2021
This is exactly how I like my works of short fiction.

Tight, not meandering. No wasted words, no fillers; no bloated bits at the end.

This collection took Deesha Philyaw years to write and compile, and I can only say: thank you. Thank you for caring about me enough as a reader not to waste my time.

This compact, darling of a collection that fit so nicely in my hand reminded me so much of my all-time favorite collection of short fiction, J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. Not in theme, tone, or time-period, but in its execution.

I can't say it enough: nothing here was a waste of my time.

Each story delivered something different: a plate of hot, greasy hush puppies, a big bowl of collards with bacon, one perfect slice of red velvet cake on a crisp white napkin, a basket filled with cornbread biscuits, and, of course, a whole peach cobbler pie cooling on the counter.

Ms. Philyaw was raised in Florida, as I was, and several of these stories take place there. I could relate to so much. . . the food, the eclectic neighborhoods, being raised on cheesy shows like Dallas and Dynasty, too.

This was comfort food, all the way, and a delicious debut.

The subtitle to this one could have easily been WHERE THE BOYS AREN'T, so a heads-up to male readers: you may not want to go here, unless you finally want to understand why we so often hate you.

Sex between women AIN'T NEVER BEEN SEXIER, Y'ALL, and I'm wishing, as I so often do, that I had been born gay, but, alas. . .

I can pretty much guarantee that most women will love this read.

Hungry for more stories like these? Go check out Toni Cade Bambara's grossly underappreciated Gorilla, My Love.

In closing: in goddess we trust.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,540 reviews24.6k followers
April 18, 2022
Deesha Philyaw writes an outstanding and moreish collection of 9 multilayered short stories focusing on multi-generational Southern black women and girls with connections to a conservative church that is so often hypocritical and judgemental. The vibrant stories are subtly nuanced, beautifully written, featuring mouthwatering food, such as that 'peach cobbler'. There are dysfunctional families, an exploration of the relationships between mothers and daughters, and those of siblings, reflecting and looking at the jarring impact of their religion with the realities of their lives, the desires, needs and fears. The stellar characters are distinct and human, vividly highlighting themes of what it is to be black and female, family, race, community, identity, faith, friendship, love, sex, sexuality, and infidelity. There is humour and wit, as in Instructions for Married Christian Husbands, along with heartbreak, and a breaking free of the expectations that can blight a life.

These are an emotionally satisfying, astonishing, and joyous set of intimate, complex and personal stories to immerse yourself in, from a talented author that will make you laugh and cry, with characters you can invest in, their strength, resilience, vulnerabilities, and bravery. My favourite stories are Dear Sister, How to Make Love to a Physicist, When Eddie Levert Comes, Snowfall and Eula, but to be honest, every story is a gem as each weaves its own particular spell. I just cannot recommend Philyaw's short stories highly enough, she is an incredible writer. Many thanks to the publisher for an ARC.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,915 reviews35.3k followers
April 23, 2021
WOW.... this is a $1.99 Audible daily special. Fantastic deal!!! For those of you who missed reading this book, and have an Audible account - the voice narrator, Janina Edwards is excellent! 4 hours and 6 minutes long.

I agree with the community here in the land of Goodreads with all of the five stars....
It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. Not that I was expecting anything… I must have totally fallen asleep after I reading all of your wonderful reviews....because I didn’t remember what I signed up for here.

My reaction:
I was either hungry or horny.

I was also fascinated with the many types of relationships- mother/daughter, men/women, women/women...
fathers of the clergy... friends with benefits... etc.

I listened to the audiobook from Hoopa
Great narrator!!! Outstanding!!!
......I plan to read the e-book as well.

I’m honestly am a little surprised to see so many four and five star reviews...
not because it isn’t....
it really is....
I’m surprise that nobody got stumped with the abundance
of suggestive/graphic slippery-viscid-lubricating-
I did a little.
Geee.... I’m embarrassed to say I discovered a ‘little’ prude-ish-ness in myself.

But heck yes.....
5 stars!!! Awesome kick ass bold fresh stories!!!
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,275 reviews2,214 followers
October 25, 2021
These are the kind of short stories that make me glad that I’ve given short stories a chance these last few years. My biggest issue with many short stories is the feeling that the story needs completing. While I didn’t love every story equally ( hard to do with a collection), just about every one felt complete . That’s not to say that I didn’t want more of Deesha Philyaw’s characters and writing. Any of these characters could fill a novel and I’m hoping for more fiction from this talented writer.

These are Intimate narratives of black women about their relationships with their mothers, sisters, lovers, their faith. My favorites:

“Dear Sister” is real, sad at times, but the last line made me laugh out loud .

I was deeply moved by the grief in “Not-Daniel”.

I found “Peach Cobbler” heartbreaking and hopeful.

“Snow” contains my favorite writing . I read parts of it over again just because.
Profile Image for Jennifer Welsh.
218 reviews160 followers
November 21, 2020
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies goes in easy, like honey with a touch of spice.
It flows from one intimate relationship to another, expanding the heart as it goes, merging reader’s with writer’s. Contemporary and accessible, lush and wry, and with something all its own, this was one of my favorite reads of 2020.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,390 reviews2,274 followers
January 29, 2021
These stories will have you clutching your pearls and fanning yourself! WOW

Deesha Philyaw’s collection of nine stories about church ladies is fresh, tender, biting, raw, deeply moving and just downright beautiful. I think there was a moment I was holding my breath while reading a story and I could only release after finishing. These stories beg to be read, and be read widely.

In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies we meet women and girls who are exploring their sexuality, while trying to be that “good girl”. We see where religion is ever present and how it is interpreted can lead to years of hurt. I think Philyaw did a superb job of exploring mother-daughter relationship in a nuanced way. These relationships are complex and never one dimensional. I love the theme of love and how it was executed, from those who are waiting for their love to arrive, to those not knowing what to do when they arrive.

Every single one of these stories were flames! Every. Single. One. Not one of them fell below a four star rating for me. I especially loved:

Yes, I know, I basically just retyped the entire table of contents but that goes to show you how great this collection is. I think the author did such a great job of exploring generational curses and how history continues to repeat itself. I do love how Black the stories were and how the author left space for grace and understanding for what each character is going through.

I have no words to let you know how my heart is so full after reading this book.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,481 reviews29.4k followers
May 21, 2021
Deesha Philyaw's The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is an excellent, powerful short story collection about Black women who follow their own desires.

Full disclosure: I totally thought this was a nonfiction book until a friend read it. I saw it was getting an immense amount of praise but I just figured it was something I probably wouldn't read. But as soon as I found out it was a story collection I jumped on it and boy, am I glad I did! These stories are truly unforgettable.

The nine stories in this collection are sometimes funny, sometimes frank and defiantly sexual, and sometimes poignant. Philyaw’s characters are daring to live their lives the way they want, but it often takes them a while to get there, and it sometimes requires reconciling their religion with their desires.

I seriously loved so many of the stories but my true favorites were: “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands,” a woman’s rules for the men she plans to sleep with; “Not-Daniel,” about a couple who comes together for comfort in the parking lot of the hospice their loved ones are in; “Peach Cobbler,” in which a young woman is determined not to make the same mistakes her mother did; and my absolute favorite, the luminously beautiful, “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” which tells of a woman who must free herself in order to find what she wants.

I devoured this collection in one sitting and was blown away by Philyaw’s talent. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was really fantastic.

I know when I post about short stories, I hear from a lot of people that they either can’t get into them or have never read any before. Some say they don't want to get invested in characters for such a short amount of time. I used to feel the same way until I discovered that in the right hands, short stories can be just as powerful as full-length novels.

Give short stories a try!

Check out my list of the best books I read in 2020 at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2021/01/the-best-books-i-read-in-2020.html.

Check out my list of the best books of the last decade at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2020/01/my-favorite-books-of-decade.html.

See all of my reviews at itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com.

Follow me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/the.bookishworld.of.yrralh/.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,110 reviews8,034 followers
April 15, 2021
Sign me up for whatever Deesha Philyaw writes next! This was one of the best short story collections I’ve read in ages, maybe ever. Almost every story was a perfect 10. My favorite was “Peach Cobbler” for sure, as well as “Snowfall” and “Eula.”

But truly all of them had astute observations of womanhood, complex relationships between mothers and daughters, love and the church. It was messy and realistic and beautifully written.

I can highly recommend the audiobook. Janina Edwards performed this book like no other. It truly was a performance, not just a reading. It elevated the stories and brought me right into the characters’ worlds.

Definitely going to be in my top books of the year!
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,308 reviews661 followers
December 19, 2020
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” is a collection of short stories about black women and their relationship to their church. In all the stories, the church plays a huge roll in how the ladies define themselves. At times, their lives are at odds with church doctrine, and always this quandary confuses the children of said church ladies.

There are nine stories in total. Sex plays a prominent roll in the stories along with the conflicted view of sex and the church. In one story, two devote women enjoy their lesbian trysts, while acknowledging that their love is not condoned by the church yet are perplexed as to why God would make human bodies to NOT be touched and loved. In another, a daughter has to witness her mother having sexual rendezvous with the married Preacher. In each story there is a conflict between church dogma and the lives these women lead.

These stories are easy to get involved in. I really enjoyed them.

This novel was nominated for the National Book Award. One of the judges citations:

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies heralds the arrival of Deesha Philyaw. Her debut collection revels in the beautiful mess of life, depicting generations of Black women navigating love, sex, death, family, and faith through the sanctuary and structures of the church.

Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
477 reviews786 followers
December 23, 2022
The Year of Women--in which I'm devoting 2021 to reading female authors only--continues with my introduction to Deesha Philyaw and her debut short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Published in 2020, this is a book that grows in richness with each entry. A lot of collections slot the best story first, sometimes using it as the title for the book. My favorite of Philyaw's nine stories were the last, then second to last, then third to last. Each involves a Black woman in America exploring her precarious relationship with the church. Her stories progress from okay to good to great.

In Eula, 40-year-old Caroletta rings in New Year’s Eve 1999 in a hotel two towns over with her childhood friend Eula, who definitely does not think of herself as gay and clings to the Christian ideal of saving herself for a good husband, a life goal Caroletta gave up on long ago, much to her lover’s surprise.

In Not-Daniel, a daughter visiting her ailing mother in hospice carries on an affair in the parking lot with a married man she meets visiting his terminally ill mother at the same facility. The affair sparked when she initially mistook him for a boy she attended junior high school with named Daniel McMurray.

In Dear Sister, a woman writes a letter to her half-sister to notify her that Wallace “Stet” Brown, the wayward father they share with three other sisters, has passed away.

In Peach Cobbler, a bright high school senior named Olivia accepts a job tutoring a classmate, the athlete son of the town pastor. Olivia knows the pastor well, having come home for many years to find him eating the prized peach cobbler her hardened mother bakes and listening to her mother entertain the married pastor in bed.

In Snowfall, Arletha has relocated from Florida to an inhospitably colder climate up north with her girlfriend Rhonda. Despite being rejected and nearly disowned by her churchgoing mother due to her sexuality, Arletha’s thoughts turn to home.

We miss their blue crabs, the shells boiled to a blood red in wash tubs atop bricks over makeshift fires built in the yard. The wash tubs reminded us of cauldrons, full of rock salt-and-cayenne-drenched water bubbling and rolling, mesh bag of seasonings and halved onions and peppers floating on top, along with potatoes and ears of corn. We miss how they stood over those cauldrons like witches, stirring a potion. With sweat beading the tips of their noses and smoke swirling around their hands and wrists, they wielded long-handled spoons to press the frantic, flailing crabs toward their deaths.

We miss how they made our Easter dresses and pound cakes and a way out of no way.

In How To Make Love To a Physicist, middle school arts teacher Lyra James meets a physicist at a STEAM conference. Naturally compatible except for living on opposite sides of the country, her relationship with her mother and upbringing in the church stoke fears of intimacy and keep her aloof from him.

In Jael, a tough, independent 14-year-old named Jael covets the glamourous young wife of their aging preacher, recording her thoughts about this and other personal matters in a diary. Her great-grandmother discovers the diary and is lost in thoughts of what to do with the “wicked’ child she’s responsible for raising.

In Instructions For Married Christian Husbands, a bakery owner offers a blunt, no-dicking-around how-to guide for married Christian men on how to conduct themselves in an extramarital affair with her.

In When Eddie Levert Comes, a dutiful daughter known to everyone as “Daughter” navigates care for her dementia stricken, born again Christian mother, who seems to not even remember who she is and treats her like a nurse while lavishing affection on her youngest son, who can barely stand to visit.

Unfortunately the zeal of the newly converted is bewildering to the children of the newly converted. One Saturday night, you’ve got every blanket in the house draped over your head to drown out the sound of your mother’s headboard banging against your bedroom wall as she hollers her soon-to-be-ex-best friend’s husband’s name. And the next Saturday night, she’s snatching the softened deck of playing cards from your hands because “Games of chance are from the devil.”

Daughter, with the logic of a ten-year-old, thought she could understand how gin rummy might be from the devil, seeing as how the name of the game had
gin in it. But what was wrong with “Knuckles” or “I Declare War,” her and her brothers’ other favorite games?

Some things changed about Mama A.C. (After Church, as Daughter thought of her). Like banning cards and men from the house. But some things didn’t change. She still told Bruce and Rico to shut their mouths—and Daughter to shut her
Black mouth—if they talked too loudly when her stories were on.

And the church was no match for Eddie Levert. The O’Jays were still Mama’s favorite group, and Eddie Levert was still her favorite in the group. Mama B.C. (Before Church) would tell her girlfriends Miss Nancy and Miss Lajene, “Eddie Levert can have me any
time, anywhere, and anyway he want it, honey! You hear me?” And they would all fall out laughing.

Mama B.C. played O’Jay albums on Friday nights after dinner, if she didn’t have a date or a card party to go to. She’d close her eyes, swing her hips, and sing along with the music. Her dance partners—a Kool cigarette and a glass of whiskey, on the rocks. Johnnie Walker Red was her drink of choice.

What I loved about The Secret Lives of Church Ladies--beyond its enticing title, which came after Philyaw published four of these stories with small presses over four years and her editor pointed out a recurring feature—is how no two stories are the same. Her narrators tend to be single, childless women in their thirties or forties attending if not abiding by the church, but each have different educational backgrounds and careers, express themselves differently, have varying attitudes towards sex and face different challenges. Philyaw’s confidence seems to grow with each story and she hits her stride two-thirds of the way in.

I think the pastor’s wife was a freak before she got into the church. She real dark-skin with long, thick hair that she wear in a bun under a black church hat, the wide kind with feathers. Sometimes the hat is dark blue, or white on Easter. But I bet when she was 14 like me, she used to have a big Afro and wear tight bellbottoms, like Thelma on Good Times. Like she’s remembering something from a long time ago. And that half-smile of hers. Like her secrets got secrets. And she got them big dick-sucking lips. Twan said that I got them too. But fuck him. Anyway. Everyone calls the preacher’s wife “Sister Sadie.” In my head, I call her “Sweet Sadie” like that song Kachelle’s mama used to play all the time when we were little. But there ain’t nothing sweet about that lady. She dress all proper in a buttoned-up suit when she standing up there with the old as dirt Reverend collecting that love offering. Sweet Sadie ain’t old-old. Her husband probably 105. She probably 40. Her body reminds me of the album covers Kachelle uncle have in his room. Ohio Players, Lakeside, The Gap Band, Parliament-Funkadelic. They got all these ladies, some real, some cartoons, with big titties, big booties, and dick-sucking lips. Sweet Sadie try to hide all that under them churchy suits. But I bet she used to wear coochie-cutter shorts before she met Old Reverend. She might be fooling the church people, but she ain’t fooling me. I know her body is beautiful underneath them suits. I wish I could see it.

Before reading this book, I was likely to perceive “church ladies” as women who use the Bible to control or punish others, or who think of themselves as better than those Jesus is still working on. Philyaw portrays “church ladies” as real people struggling with morality like the rest of us, some for better, some for worse, but all human beings. Published by West Virginia University Press, the book became an unlikely finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Tessa Thompson and HBO Max have optioned it for a planned film, with Philyaw writing the adaptation. I'm looking forward to it and her first novel.

Deesha Philyaw was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She received a BA in economics from Yale University and an MA in teaching from Manhattanville College. She settled in Pittsburgh as an adjunct professor at Chatham University and worked as a freelance writer and editor, publishing a book with her ex-husband, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce in 2013. Philyaw quit her corporate communications job in 2019 to expand her writing consultant service and pursue a writing career full time. She lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.

Previous reviews in the Year of Women:

-- Come Closer, Sara Gran
-- Veronica, Mary Gaitskill
-- Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine
-- Pizza Girl, Jean Kyoung Frazier
-- My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
-- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg
-- The Memoirs of Cleopatra, Margaret George
-- Miss Pinkerton, Mary Roberts Rinehart
-- Beast in View, Margaret Millar
-- Lying In Wait, Liz Nugent
-- And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
-- Desperate Characters, Paula Fox
-- You, Caroline Kepnes
-- Deep Water, Patricia Highsmith
-- Don't Look Now and Other Stories, Daphne du Maurier
-- You May See a Stranger: Stories, Paula Whyman
Profile Image for Darryl Suite.
481 reviews349 followers
February 28, 2021
FINAL REVIEW: I’m in love. I’m freaking out. And I need/want/crave more.

This collection reminded me why I love short stories. By Page 5, I knew this was going to be a firecracker of a collection. One of the key successes of this collection is how Philyaw manages to get you deeply invested in all the characters and scenarios almost immediately. By the first page of each story, you find yourself enraptured and needing to sprint through those pages. Think of your favorite dish: yes, there’s that feeling of needing to savor every morsel, appreciate all the flavors. But there’s also that greediness, that knowingness of how satisfying it will be after you’ve consumed the entire thing. There’s a lot to chew on when it comes to this collection, but there’s also an addictive quality attached to it. There’s a reason why everyone is flying through this book.

Enter this world of dutiful churchgoers, lapsed parishioners, larger-than-life pastors, non-believers, unapologetic sinners, and those hiding their true ratchet selves behind masks of piety. All the stories are told through the point of view of Black women, and most of them are filled with quiet rage. There are struggles with sexuality, faith or lack of faith, body image, romantic relationships, sex, abandonment, atonement, family, and loyalty.

Even though every story is a firecracker and crackling with energy, they’re all approached with different moods and vibes. You’ll find humorous stories; lush, angry, crass, and so on. You’ll find sensuality in “Eula,” vivid imagery in “Peach Cobbler,” a laugh riot in “Dear Sister.” Get to know the pure madness that is “Jael.” You’ll get a surprisingly heightened feminist and empowering manifesto in “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands.” And “How to Make Love to a Physicist” is just straight-up sexy. I read that entire story out loud because I needed to experience the prose on another level: verbally.

This collection was such a pleasant surprise. More important, it was a pleasure to read. What a joyful experience.

Profile Image for Katie Colson.
642 reviews5,566 followers
April 3, 2022
I am so glad this book exists.

A group of queer, black, church ladies who won’t take shit from anyone, including God. I’m obsessed. They felt like true stories.

The fact that this is still happening today. That these women exist in this world by the thousands and are struggling so hard to be ‘good’ godly women but finding the double standards of the church unbearable, is so heart breaking.

This book touched my heart and made me laugh and made me tear up. I love these women. And good on them for getting some p*ssy.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,424 reviews8,306 followers
February 11, 2021
Appreciated this short story collection that delves into the interior and exterior lives of Black women and girls. As noted by other reviewers, Black women so often only are allowed to exist as caregivers or as saviors. In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw melts down these stereotypes and shows Black women in the midst of navigating their needs, desires, and passions, all while grappling with the double standards of the church.

My two favorite short stories included "Peach Cobbler" and "How to Make Love to a Physicist." The former involves a young girl whose mother is having an affair with their church's preacher, and how she must decide how much to accept or reject her mother's example. The latter includes a woman slowly turning toward romantic love even after having been hurt in the past. I liked how both stories highlighted the ways in which our histories influence our relationships, as well as our agency to change course even when it feels hard.

Most of the other stories I felt more distance from, either because of the story's length or a more detached writing style. I'm glad that many others have enjoyed this collection and hope for more books that center Black women.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,229 reviews451 followers
May 17, 2021
I intended to read this the same way I read most short story collections, one story a day. But I couldn't do that with this one, it was too addicting. I loved these ladies and their stories, the way they tried ro reconcile the way they had been raised with the realities of the life they needed. I loved their strength, their humor, their resilience. The author knows a lot about growing up in the 70's and 80's in the south, and lordy, can she write about food! Fried chicken and crab boils and peach cobbler! She described my favorite Swanson's TV dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, and the little soggy brownie that came as a bonus. She described how difficult it is for southerners to come to grips with snow and cold when they live in the north. She reminded me " that friendship is not the same as history, just as a bone is not the same as it's marrow."

The women in these stories all have black skin and mine is white, but we think and feel the same. My favorite stories were "Peach Cobbler" and "Dear Sister", but all of them were gems.
Profile Image for Brandice.
822 reviews
February 12, 2021
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a short story collection about Black women balancing the church’s expectations and their own interests.

Short stories aren’t always my jam but I really enjoyed this collection touching on family, sexuality, motherhood, and relationships. There are 9 stories and they all felt like the right length. Unlike many collections (which is often a factor in my hesitant interest in wanting to read them), there were no “bust” stories here — They were all at least good, many great! “How to Make Love to a Physicist” was my favorite.

Thank you to NetGalley and West Virginia University Press for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
524 reviews9,477 followers
September 20, 2020
These stories are so good. They’re unapologetically Black, humorous, sad, complex, full, and sometimes steamy too. I loved most of them and liked a few but overall really impressed. Philyaw has crafted a whole world and whole humans in so few words.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,469 reviews2,298 followers
June 2, 2022
Now a Finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction 2020
This collection contains nine short stories focusing on Southern Black women who attend or attended church, but defy conservative religious norms. The book shines because it manages to give its characters distinct voices that draw readers into their world immediately - it's easy to feel with the group of (half-) sisters who just buried their selfish father and now contact the one half sister they haven't met yet, with the girl who lives with a mother who has a long-term affair with the preacher, or the woman who struggles to overcome the alienation and shame she feels about her own body. These female protagonists feel so lively, so real, so three-dimensional, and the convincing way the author crafts facets of human interaction is really a spectacle to behold.

Food, sex, relationships with others - the women in the stories are looking for comfort and happiness while fighting various demons, and sometimes each other or even themselves. In most cases, short story collections have a certain number of meeehhh efforts or fillers, but not this one: Here, the one text that falls short, "Jael", doesn't work because it is over-ambitious and goes off the rails with its many shifts and tricks, thus at least failing in an interesting way.

Author Deesha Philyaw originally aimed to write a novel about a pastor's wife, but failed - and then decided to process the topic of women in Black churches in short stories. Philyaw explained that she herself grew up in a church community, and that the women she met there have gravely influenced her ideas of what being a woman means. Regarding the varying styles, she pointed to the so-called "hermit crab essays", meaning essays that utilize strict forms like that of a manual. She wanted to transfer that to fiction and came up with a letter form, a Q & A etc. Topically, she cites Heavy, Heads of the Colored People, and the works of Toni Morrison as influences.

So thanks, National Book Award, I wouldn't have picked the book up if it wasn't nominated, which means I would have missed out on a wonderful, intense, powerful collection.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,417 reviews535 followers
February 23, 2021
[4+] A wonderful collection filled with heart and soul. I got to know and care for each the "church ladies" Philyaw portrays. Her characters are faced with sadness and family struggles but there is also plenty of hope and humor. After finishing each story, I wanted to keep on reading. And amazingly - all of these stories are excellent!
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books140 followers
May 5, 2022
Short-Listed 2020 National book Awards

I don’t usually read short story collections. I like to stay with characters for more extended periods. However, I found Deesha Philyaws’s debut collection of nine stories mesmerizing. The stories center on African American women and explore how their connection to the church or religion impacts their relationships with parents, siblings, or partners. My favorite, Peach Cobbler, examines a young woman’s response to her mother’s long-term affair with the local minister.

Deesha Philyaw is a stellar writer. Her characters are nuanced, funny, and insightful. Many of her protagonists could have easily filled a novel. She is a writer to watch. Highly recommend.

Thanks to GR friend Candi for inspiring me to read this book.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,022 reviews882 followers
March 28, 2021
My goddess, this was such an unexpected delight.
Subversive, perverse, smooth, amusing, smart - this was so enjoyable, even for this middle-aged, white, suburban, atheist woman, who has never even met a black American woman.
Being very accessible and an easy read makes it even more impressive. I found myself wondering several times who is this woman who writes so well?

Anyway, I can't quite express how much I enjoyed this. Read it, or don't, but read it!

This is going on my favourite books of the year list.

NB: the audiobook narrator was very good. I would have preferred different narrators so there was more distinction between the stories and the characters telling each story, who varied greatly in age. Nevertheless, having a black woman read the book to me only added to my enjoyment.
Profile Image for Anne .
437 reviews346 followers
March 5, 2021
I am not a big reader of short story collections but after reading so many fantastic reviews about The Secret Lives of Church Ladies I couldn’t resist checking it out. I started with the first story and couldn’t stop reading until I finished the last story. What a compelling, poignant and fun collection this is about the conflicts Black women face between Church, love and sexuality. Mother/daughter relationships also abound in this collection (Julie). Every story engaged my heart and mind but a few were standouts: Peach Cobbler, Snowfall and How To Make Love To a Physicist.
Profile Image for Dwayne.
118 reviews114 followers
July 13, 2022
One of the best short story collections I've read so far. Having grown up in a Black church, I really appreciate what the author does with this. I love how Black and queer everything is. My faves were (in no particular order) "Peach Cobbler," "How to Make Love to a Physicist," "Jael," and "Instructions for Married Christian Husbands."
Thank you, National Book Awards; this would probably have flown completely under my radar had it not been a finalist for their fiction award. I can't wait to read it again! Please do yourself a favour and read this. Will definitely be re-reading soon!
Profile Image for luce (tired and a little on edge).
1,417 reviews3,416 followers
June 1, 2022
blogthestorygraphletterboxd tumblrko-fi

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a compelling fiction debut from a promising author. As the title suggests the stories in this collection are centred on Black women who have complex relationships to their church and to God. In a concise and stirring prose Deesha Philyaw explores the lives, desires, and fears of her characters, focusing on the friction between their beliefs—often instilled by their parents or communities—and their sense of self. Philyaw captures Black girlhood and womanhood, showing the importance of female solidarity and human connection. While not all of the stories have a contemporary setting, the topics Philyaw touches on are still relevant: race, faith, sexuality, sex, love, family, belonging. Fraught mother-daughter relationships appear in more than one story, and it is a sign of Philyaw's writing skills that she is able to portray each woman (be it the daughter or the mother) with nuance. Philyaw, similarly to Danielle Evans, who simply excels at writing short stories, balances moments of poignancy with humour (I simply loved the grandmother in 'Dear Sister').
The dialogues, settings, and ideas depicted in these pages are vividly rendered. My favourite stories were 'Dear Sister', 'Peach Cobbler', 'Snowfall' (this one was a heartbreaker), and 'How To Make Love To a Physicist' (the style in this one is really fun). The other stories are certainly enjoyable and well-written did not strike me as the ones I've just mentioned.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of authors such as Danielle Evans and Zalika Reid-Benta and I am looking forward to Philyaw's next book.

ps: rereading this made me appreciate it even more. There is something about Philyaw's prose that I find deeply captivating.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,583 reviews1,982 followers
February 5, 2021
4.5 stars. I haven't read a story collection in a very, very long time. There is a certain expectation I have when I pick one up, but sometimes a collection will entirely bust through that expectation and that is why I still pick them up sometimes. Because I want that experience. I was very happy to have it with this book.

My expectation is that a collection will be just fine all together. That some stories will be exquisite and others just okay, maybe a dud or two. But here, there was not a single story that I would even call "just okay." I loved every single one. And every time one ended I had to take a moment and take a breath. (This is very hard with an audiobook that just keeps pushing forward, sometimes you can't even tell a story is over until you realize that one sentence doesn't connect with the previous one.) I liked that these stories were in a contained space, that while the characters were all different, they would all recognize each other. That they navigated the same spaces and came from the same kind of places. An awful lot about mothers and daughters, about sisters, about sex, and even about queerness. (I would also like to note that it is not a book about Black suffering, though for queer readers there are stories with characters in the closet and characters who have been disowned.)

I almost cried about ten times, I was so emotionally invested in these women. I could have read a whole novel of each story. Despite their similarities they never felt repetitive. The hype for this book is very real and it's absolutely deserving of all the praise it's received. Would have been on my Best of 2020 list if I'd read it last year.

I did the audiobook and the reader was very good, though as I mentioned there are not long enough breaks between the stories. They are divided into parts/chapters, though, in your app so you can get the visual clues.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books767 followers
June 2, 2022
The first story of this finely written collection sets a recurring theme, that of the religious vs. those who aren't going to let religion get in the way of their own truth (for lack of a one-word opposite). The latter aren’t necessarily nonbelievers, but they aren’t ‘brainwashed’ as the title character Eula is either.

The epistolary style of “Dear Sister” is a great way to show the different effects an absent/neglectful father can have upon his daughters, even into their adulthoods. It's told with enough hope, humor, and love among other relatives that it’s not too dark, and still realistic.

“Peach Cobbler” is my favorite of the bunch. From things I’d read, I expected it to be joyful, especially in terms of the dessert itself. I found it the opposite—peach cobbler not as an object of joy, but as an object of greed, selfishness, and deprivation. When the narrator makes the cobbler herself, it becomes a substitute for love and affection, similar to what the boys at school were for her, an outlet for her desire to be touched.

As a Southerner who lived in Milwaukee for four years, I related to the weather aspects of “Snowfall.” It's another tale of mother-daughter conflict, but it was nice to have a ‘warm’ resolution this time, especially coming after the previous story.

Philyaw is an insightful, clever writer. I look forward to seeing what she does next. Here’s a great conversation between her and Maurice Ruffin: https://mauricecarlosruffin.substack....
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