Viviane Joan "Vivi" Abbott Walker, the leader of the Sisterhood, becomes an abusive alcoholic who beats her (three or four, depending on whether you're watching or reading) children in a dissociative episode wherein she becomes convinced that the reason her offspring are so annoying to her is because they are possessed by the devil. Years later, the eldest daughter, Siddalee Walker, now a successful playwright, accidentally exposes the whole incident in a magazine story which describes Vivi, quite accurately, as a "tap-dancing child abuser." She is disowned. Vivi's three friends decide to fix matters by kidnapping Sidda away from her fiancee and taking her home to force the two to talk.
While this is the central chain of events, the story details the events surrounding the situation, moving through time to explore friends, relatives, heartaches and joys. It recounts events from the Sisterhood's childhood and Sidda's, even reaching back to the adolescence of Vivi's mother on a couple of occasions, and paints a picture of generations of deeply flawed women who are nonetheless, by degrees, learning to function as individuals and form their own families.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a sequel to Wells' earlier novel, Little Altars Everywhere, in which the child abuse is a lot more sexualized and egregious. Arguably a Downer Ending: The point seems to be that while Siddalee has gotten past her childhood and used it to grow ... she's got three siblings who are yet to have such experiences.
This work contains examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Oh Jesus and how. In the central instance Siddalee is stripped and beaten to the point of wetting herself; Little Altars Everywhere makes it clear that dear Momma was shtupping the youngest son, Baylor, and heavily implies that she was either getting off on the beatings she was dealing out or trying to make things better.
- Bittersweet Ending: In the book, Vivi and Sidda finish the book laughing and crying on a porch swing, and tacitly acknowledge their past with a ritual exchange of tears. It Makes Sense in Context.
- Boarding School of Horrors: As a teenager, Vivi is sent to a harrowing religious school where toilet paper is rationed, food is gruel and she is left passed out on a dirty bathroom floor while a prefect reports her for being wasteful.
- Calling the Old Man Out: "They weren't all lies, Momma. Or have you forgotten the feel of a belt in your hand?"
- Cannot Spit It Out: Most of the problems in the book could have been avoided if Vivi would have just simply told Siddalee that she was in the middle of a drug-fueled nervous breakdown when she snapped and started to beat Satan out of her children; since the author makes it clear that doing so would somehow make that forgivable when Vivi would rather actually be thought of as a tap-dancing child abuser than the victim of postpartum depression, Catholic guilt and a dangerous psychoactive drug, the most Vivi will say is that her parenting has been 'uneven'.
- The Deep South: In Vivi and the gang's home, somewhat (note the name Siddalee ...) When the Sisterhood visits one of their aunts ... ohhh dear.
- Elegant Classical Musician: An unusual male example, but it definitely counts. Vivi's boyfriend attracts the attention of everyone everywhere ever because he just looks and sounds so pretty when playing his fiddle. It's also used to demonstrate what a gentleman he is; there's a very touching scene in the book where he dedicates a song to Vivi's unattractive, unloved mother and nearly makes her cry with happiness.
- Four-Temperament Ensemble: The Ya-yas; Drama Queen Vivi is the Sanguine, Team Mom Teensy is the Choleric, gentle Necie is the Phlegmatic, and scrappy Caro is the Melancholic.
- Hollywood Nuns: Averted, surprisingly enough. Vivi's boarding school features a nightmarish cast of teachers, but some of the administration (most notably the infirmary) is tended to by a different order with different rules and different penguin dresses.
- In the Blood: Siddalee would love to have children with Connor... and is terrified if there's even a chance she might be as bad as Vivi.
- Lady Drunk: Vivi. She goes to the lake so the kids can swim ... with a large water bottle full of her special "re-Vivi-fication tonic" (read: contains vodka).
- Parental Neglect: Where exactly is Vivi's husband when the kids are getting beaten and molested? (Answer: Duck camp)
- Parental Incest: Vivi's mother thinks this when her father gives Vivi a ring during her birthday.
- Threat Backfire:Teensy: Go! Go home right now!Vivi: Don't you talk to me like that. I'll knock you in the middle of next week!Teensy: Then I will kick your sorry ass on Thursday.
- Woman Scorned: When Caro's husband left her for his male lover, her response involved a shotgun. She cooled down after a few years, and now all three are close friends and Amicable Exes.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: In the film, Siddalee is depicted as a woman in her 30s (in 2002) despite being born in the early 1950s at the latest.