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Smoke, Drink, Don’t Think

The literary vaudeville

When I was in grade school in the late Seventies, all the other girls used to get together during recess to talk about which Charlie’s Angel they wanted to be. The überbabes tended to view themselves as Jills, flipping their hair back à la Farrah, while the submissive but popular ones were often Kellys. Even the ugly-duckling brainiacs had a place in the hierarchy, though admittedly they had to resign themselves to being Sabrinas. There was a clandestine air to the way these girls gathered in the cafeteria or the bathroom to discuss their roles, an exclusivity that was especially palpable for me since we didn’t have a TV at my house. I was left out of the roundtables, and was once even accused of being a Bosley.

When I was at my place of employment in the late Nineties, all the other white-collar women used to pass around trade paperbacks. In the course of their lunchroom discussions they never mentioned which of the characters they wanted to be; gone were the open identifications of fourth grade. But there was something in their warm and collective appreciation of so-called “women’s” fiction that was still alien to Bosleys like me. And of all the books they read in 1998, none was quite as extraterrestrial as Rebecca Wells’s critically beloved bestseller Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (HarperCollins, 356 pages, $14.00 paperback).

This perky saga of a passel of debutante girlfriends growing up in Louisiana—the lovable, self-named Ya-Yas of the title—warmly recounts the fun they have playing together, praying together, and staying together from cradle to grave. Its plot hinges on the midlife crisis of one of their precocious but neurotic offspring, who directs a hit play, gets engaged, has an existential realization (death is mandatory), decides she doesn’t “know how to love,” goes off to find herself in a quaint woodsy cabin, and in the end marries Prince Charming as we always knew she would. At which point the angels pretty much commence to weep:

The angels attending her that night … wanted to rock, they wanted to roll…. They wanted to taste the saltiness of tears the way Sidda did, the way Vivi did, the way—if the truth be told—almost everyone did on the night Sidda Walker wed Connor McGill.

Now, critics and co-workers don’t hail Ya-Ya for being the most rigorously by-the-numbers melodrama or most predictable series of clichés to appear in years. No, they love the book because, in its celebration of “female friendship,” it’s said to be confrontational, subversive, and yet reassuring. But what is most striking about Ya-Ya is its simultaneous glorification of privilege and its giggly applause for women’s marginalization. It’s hard to see it as much more than a ruling-class Harlequin romance: The Ya-Yas are vapid, pampered, self-obsessed Barbie dolls who pass their time picnicking and drinking highballs together. What common values they have beyond purchasing power are neatly summarized by the Billie Holiday bon mot that appears on the very first page, “Smoke, drink, don’t think.” Between the drinking and the not thinking, they occasionally do their bit for society by giving their Givenchy coats as hand-me-downs to the black maid. Meanwhile, their husbands are largely invisible—off running the country, no doubt. After all, someone’s got to be doing the dirty work of Commerce and State. What a giddy romp!

Furthermore, this author really means it, we realize with a start. Here is how Wells describes our heroine trotting out her “Yankee sweetheart” for the approval of her Southern family: “She could not stop smiling as she watched her Yale-educated scenic designer release the Good Ole Boy within.” This mass-market paperback shorthand appears throughout the book, with “Yale-educated” (elite-rich) and “Good Ole Boy” (elite-white) serving to reassure us that no matter what our differences—be we descendants of slaveowners or Boston Brahmins—we can always find bonhomie among the ranks of our class.

The repulsiveness of this fairly simple point—rich people can have fun—is magnified by the book’s unforgivable pretentiousness. Sporting an H.L. Mencken epigraph, it seems to see itself as symphonically profound, even transcendent. And yet, if I had a dollar for every friend of mine who’s waxed appreciative of this feculent frolic, I’d be able to run out and buy a Givenchy coat of my own. Evidently intelligent women no longer need to hear about equality or autonomy; pseudo-intellectual celebrations of female friendship are quite enough to give their reading that pro-female patina. (Let’s not say feminist; the Ya-Yas wouldn’t. Such a strong, ugly word. Someone might misunderstand.) By throwing in a few references to goddesses, the Virgin Mary, and the Moon, Wells brings off a truly impressive insult to the sex.

To demonstrate its open-mindedness, the book makes a few minor concessions to identity politics. There’s a gay costume designer who does “fabulous Diana Ross imitations” and a black servant who talks back. In a fit of grrrlish rebellion, the young Ya-Yas restore the original African stylings and copious makeup to a Cuban statue of the Virgin that one of their mothers has made them whitewash. And once, in a rare and daring bit of overt political commentary, George Bush is mildly insulted. (On the other hand, the child Ya-Yas sob nostalgically for the Confederacy after viewing Gone with the Wind.) But essentially this fable exists to wax romantic and warm-hearted about the sacrament of marriage. At the story’s climax, all but one of the now-elderly Ya-Yas muster their feeble force and travel en masse from the Bayou to Puget Sound in a courageous campaign to convince our play-directing protagonist to marry her fiancé. And the prospect that the all-important nuptials might fall through is the only thing, it turns out, that will bring the remaining Ya-Ya—Sidda’s estranged and drunken mother, Vivi—to forgive our heroine for gossiping about her, thus arranging for a happy ending.

More insulting than the repetition of tired formulae for female fulfillment, however, is the host of aesthetic presumptions that inform this magnum opus. Ya-Ya is genre fiction for the age of demographics, targeting a well-heeled readership with an oddly stilted idiom. Specifically, it is addressed to those liberated suburbanites who will not be confused or offended by, for example, this passage in which Sidda writes her affianced:

Connor, unequaled—… My, but you gardeners know how to romance a blossom. Take my breath away, why don’t you?

Or this description of her masturbating:

So Sidda touched herself. She touched her blossom until, out of self-love, it swelled and quivered.

It’s like Designing Women with a slightly less oblique vocabulary. There’s also a clubby, precious feeling to much of the prose—euphemistic yet vulgar, repressed, and lurid at the same time; not self-scrutinizing, but often self-congratulatory; not strong, but very, very smug. Sentences, paragraphs, entire chapters with these attributes present a nicely balanced style equation, offering a perfectly circumscribed indulgence to the target reader—in this case a woman, who in Ya-Ya seems to be looking for assurances that she is both fallen from grace and upwardly mobile. She’s both oppressed and leisured enough to enjoy it. After all, in the face of derision and bigotry from so many quarters, it’s nice to know that those of us with a little family money can sit back, ignore the world, and paint our toenails together.

But let’s say for a minute that this novel did, in fact, successfully celebrate female friendship instead of privilege and preening: In what way would that render it pro-female? Women haven’t had the franchise for all that long, nor the right to education, to equal pay, or to run for office, and in most of the world they still don’t; but what we most want to read about, apparently, is our ability to like each other. And to like ourselves.

The end of the book sees Sidda dancing happily on her wedding night and ready to start work on her second theatrical triumph (she will follow Women on the Cusp with The Women: A Musical). As the final line reads,

For Siddalee Walker, the need to understand had passed…. All that was left was love and wonder.

Who needs to understand? Just cavort and compare cup sizes, ladies, and live happily ever after.