Terry McMillan Is Back With a New Book This Month
With humor, pain and plenty of plot twists, her latest novel is a girlfriend story for the ages.
The woman who showed us Black Girl Magic before there was Black Girl Magic, who shared stories of sisterhood and struggle and survival in a way that made us shake our heads and smile, is at it again. While Zora and Toni also told our stories, Terry McMillan did so in a way that made the world sit up and take notice. Her ten novels have sold millions of copies, and four of them (Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Disappearing Acts and A Day Late and a Dollar Short) have been made into films. At every age, in every stage, McMillan saw us. And as her latest book, It’s Not All Downhill From Here, demonstrates, she is seeing us still.
As the book begins, Loretha, the main character, is approaching her 68th birthday. She’s been happily married to Carl for 24 years, and we’re quickly introduced to Loretha’s besties — Sadie, Poochie, Korynthia, Lucky — all of whom have been homegirls since high school. McMillan is good at creating characters that mirror folks that we know from ’round the way. In Korynthia we have the health-conscious advocate, Sadie is the sanctified-but-not-quite-saintly Christian, Poochie is the caregiver for her elderly mother, Lucky is the bitch of the bunch (her homegirls’ word, not mine) and Loretha is the financially successful entrepreneur. Within pages, however, tragedy strikes and soon a slew of challenging situations arise. What happens amid those various challenges are the meat and potatoes of the story.
Fact: Women of a certain age are often marginalized in this society, almost to the point of invisibility. Not here, though. It's worth noting that McMillan is the same age as the main characters, so one can assume she knows a little sumthin sumthin about what these ladies are dealing with. And in this book, these ladies are dealing with a lot. There’s death. Depression. Trifling family members. Health problems. Wayward children. Infidelity. Drug addiction. Divorce. Same-sex relationships. Interracial relationships. Obesity. Senior scams. Phew! None of this is exactly comedic material, but McMillan manages to address these issues in ways that won’t send you running for the nearest cliff. Her main points are these: Although bad things happen, you gotta keep living. You should take care of yourself and not give up on the people you love. And most of all, please stop acting as if your best years are behind you!
Loretha and friends meet monthly to eat, drink and discuss what’s going on in their lives. In true sisterly fashion, they support each other through their trials and call each other out on their stuff, if need be. Sadie is chastised for having an affair with a married man. Loretha is reprimanded for not taking her diabetes diagnosis seriously. But they also laugh. A lot. In one scene (reminiscent of the “I could’ve had a V8” moment in Waiting to Exhale), Korynthia describes a date she had with someone she met on a senior dating site. She and her Viagra-popping lothario have sex, but things aren’t clicking. Korynthia retreats to the bathroom to plot her escape, but instead, when she comes out, winds up once again giving intimacy the old college try. She says: “I felt sorry for him, but when he started yelling ‘Ride it girl,’ I heard myself yell ‘Give me something to ride!’ Apparently that hurt his feelings, but I didn’t care, and I sat up and said ‘How many of those pills did you take?’ He said two and that’s when I jumped up, put my clothes on and told him to go find a prostitute and do not call me anymore.” The girlfriends are in tears by the time Korynthia finished her story. Clearly, the desire for sexual intimacy doesn’t disappear with age.
At another point in the book, Loretha visits Lucky at her home and discovers that her friend is smoking weed and living in squalor. Lucky admits to feeling old, overwhelmed and bored with her life. “I don’t know what to do with so much free time on my hands,” she says. “I even stopped shopping. I have too much of everything but not enough of something.” Rather than lecture her buddy, Loretha rolls up her sleeves and cleans Lucky’s house, demonstrating that true friendship must sometimes move beyond lip service into action.
How does one deal with loss? Or having family members who seem hell-bent on self-destruction? Or caring for an elderly parent? Or not having enough income to make ends meet? McMillan touches on all of these topics with varying degrees of success. While I admire and respect her overall body of work, there were moments in this book when the dialogue seemed stilted, the plot twists seemed predictable and some of the character’s reactions seemed unbelievable. I wanted more than that. That said, McMillan deserves props for once again showing the strength and resilience of the Black family, even when that family isn’t biologically related. She does a good job of exploring the nuances of depression, revealing how it can be generational and how it is at times disguised as something else. And she treats same-sex relationships with sensitivity. Given the homophobia that still exists in some segments of our community, she deserves big kudos for that.
Ultimately, this book reminds me of a sepia-toned Hallmark movie; it’s cute and slightly cloying with few surprises en route to its happily-ever-after ending. But I suppose that’s as good a way as any to approach life’s penultimate chapter — with humor and hope and the belief that, ultimately, it’s not all downhill from here.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, McMillan canceled her national book tour, but updates are available on her website. (terrymcmillan.com)