Jane Hobson's daughter knew her mother was a "Ya-Ya" at age 8, when her mother woke her on car pool day, felt her forehead for a temperature and determined that she had a fever and must stay home from school. "But I'm not sick," said the New Orleans youngster.

"But `Gone With the Wind' is on TV today," countered her mother.

In the words of countless Ya-Yas around the nation: "That is so Ya-Ya."

But what, or who, is a Ya-Ya? The definition lies inside the pages of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," the novel by Rebecca Wells that has spawned dozens of Ya-Ya groups nationwide.

"To my delight and total surprise, there are these charming and outrageous Ya-Ya clubs forming all over the country: wild women and not a few savvy men who identify with my tribe of fictional Louisiana girlfriends," writes Wells in a welcome letter posted on the "Ga-Ga for Ya-Yas" Web site, www.ya-ya.com.

The book explores the Teflon-tough ties of mothers, daughters and childhood friends, set in the languid Deep South, circa 1940 to present. The term "Ya-Ya" derives from the ceremonial scene, when the four childhood pals proclaim their tribal name and their promise to be friends for life. A closeness many wish to recapture -- and celebrate.

"A Ya-Ya is someone who can laugh at herself, let loose and be able to be a true girlfriend," said Karen Barr-Pfeifer, 37, founder of the New Orleans Chapter of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. "It takes a lot to be a special girlfriend; not everyone can be a Ya-Ya."

In the past two years, the 1996 novel has inspired women -- and a handful of men -- to organize groups that bring to life the book's characters, themes and good times. There are almost 40 official chapters, from around the country, Canada and England, as well as a gay men's group in Houston. The younger set, or Petites Ya-Yas, as well as husbands and boyfriends, known as Yum-Yums, also are encouraged to get involved.

The gatherings resemble book clubs with a twist: Members discuss the plot and personalities of the Ya-Yas, and even reenact some of the story lines -- but they have only one book on their reading list. Some of the groups nibble appetizers and recite passages in a member's living room. Others embark on a wild and wacky women's-only weekend.

Some throw sleep-overs and toenail-painting parties. Others create scrapbooks or read aloud old high school love letters. The clubs' varied activities seem to reflect their geography and demography, but the urge to form deep friendships knows no boundaries.

"This is not Junior League, it is not Little League, it is not a fan club," drawled Hobson, 64, a part-time fashion consultant in New Orleans and mother of five. "It is just a group of women who bonded over the book and like each other. This is all about humor and fun."

Or, in the words of character Siddalee: "Of all the secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the most divine is humor."

And laugh they do. At the March meeting of the Virginia Ya-Ya Sisterhood, six women met at the Herndon house of founder Liz Klein. The women, ranging in age from 25 to 73, filled a giant punch bowl with orange and lime sherbet, 7-Up and random liquor from the cabinet. They then slurped from the same bowl with giant straws. They chatted about careers and compared computer systems, and offered advice to a younger member who hoped to get married. The party broke up at 10:30 p.m., when the punch ran out.

"What inspires women, and draws them in, is this feeling of connectedness," said Leslie Garwood, a New York social worker who specializes in relationship and female issues. "We are a society of people feeling lost in the shuffle, looking for ways to feel connected through a club or a sisterhood."

Re-creating a sense of community -- and the closeness of childhood friends, even among new acquaintences -- is central to the clubs and online "Gumbo Ya-Ya" chat rooms.

The groups attract a mix of ages and professions, and women who know each other from work or the neighborhood -- or, often, not at all.

There are also mothers, daughters and mothers-in-law. But, unlike the book, few of the Ya-Yas grew up together.

Robin Porter of the Crofton Ya-Yas sent the book to a smattering of local women -- among them an artist, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, a speechwriter, a homemaker and a nurse -- she had wished to befriend. She told them to read the book, then organized a brunch two months later in February.

Pfeifer selected five influential women and one man she had admired since moving to New Orleans from Kansas. She gave them the book, met them for lunch and told them to pick two or three of their friends who were "total Ya-Ya."

Their first gathering attracted between 15 and 20 people; they now meet on the first Tuesday of every month, usually at a French Quarter hotel bar where they dress in the "summer uniform" (white shirt, shorts, socks and Keds), sing loudly to piano tunes and dance outrageously.

Or, they initiate new members. Taking their cue from the book's rituals, they gulp an oyster from a martini glass, float lit candles in a pool, stand in a circle and announce their Ya-Ya sobriquets.

The Web site also brings together Ya-Yas and gives them an outlet to let loose, or find companionship and support.

"[The mother] of one of my friends of 30 years is dying of cancer . . . I love my friend -- but after reading `Divine Secrets' I can't help but wonder what a Ya-Ya would do!" expressed one writer, who signed off as Summerhill Ya-Yas.

Member Lanolin responded: ". . . as someone who's `been there' . . . you REALLY appreciate the Ya-Yas that help you get thru hard times!"

"There is an ache inside everyone to be talked with, because when talking with other people it fosters a sense of belonging," said Mark Goulston, a UCLA psychiatrist who writes a weekly advice column for iVillage.com, a Web site for women. "Just as hope springs eternal, so too does good heart-to-heart conversation."

And when the Ya-Yas get together, the conversation flows, ceaselessly and easily. Just like that of Wells's good old Southern gals.

"It's strictly for laughs. Wherever we go, we just act crazy. The whole point is there is no point," said Hobson, echoing the sentiments of the character Vivi: "Life, you don't figure it out, you just climb on the beast and ride with it."