If you've been holding your breath for the sequel to novelist Terry McMillan's literary blockbuster, "Waiting to Exhale," it's time to let go and release all that pent up oxygen. In her new book, "Getting to Happy," McMillan picks up the stories of Savannah, Gloria, Bernadine, and Robin 15 years after we last heard from them.
Unsurprisingly, a lot has happened to them. As usual, McMillan's snappy ear-to-the-ground dialogue drops you right into the center of her characters' lives — women who are now their late 40s and early 50s.
After the incredible commercial success of "Waiting to Exhale" — the book and the movie — McMillan said she had no plans for a sequel. She had gone through an ugly public divorce, played out in the tabloids and in a revealing interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
"I realized how angry I had been and, well, just how it was eating me up and how bitter I was," she said during an interview this week in Chicago, one of the stops on her "Getting to Happy" national book tour. "And I started observing how many other women were also bitter and angry. But I was headed for recovery," McMillan says. "When I started the book, I hadn't forgiven my ex-husband, but I have since. "I think writing the story may or may not have helped. And, I started realizing how many women never recover. They're bitter forever and angry. And, I just started to think about how many women in the age group from late 40 on [were angry]."
McMillan said a lot of women "just don't recover from a lot of things" that happen in their lives.
They suffer from the empty nest syndrome and have regrets about never having married or having had children. "And there were a lot of women who were just disappointed. I saw a lot of this," the bestselling author said. So, she came up with four scenarios that she thought she would focus on.
"Then it dawned on me," she said, "that I had already written one book with four female protagonists and it just hit me where I had left off with those four women and how easily they fit into these new scheme of things I had chosen. So, with that in mind, I just decided to reconsider them."
When we meet up with those protagonists again, each is at her own mid-life crossroad: Savannah decides she wants out of marriage to her "boring" husband. Robin spends money she doesn't have and gets advice on her love life from her teenage daughter. Bernadine has an unbearable secret about the man she's been married to for six years. And, Gloria, the only one happily married, finds happiness can slip away in a moment.
McMillan, who dishes dialogue from her characters' lips as though she has lived with them, likes her characters smart and glib. And, Bernadine's teenage daughter, Sparrow, is one sharp, outspoken young woman. "Kids have a lot more information at their disposal than we did," said McMillan, who is 58, explaining her ability to masterfully handle youthful dialogue. "They even understand the psychology about divorce. They get a lot of stuff that shrinks spend hours trying to convince adults about. I wanted Sparrow to be a little over the top."
As with her other books, McMillan braces for the criticism about her male characters. And, to those critics, she has this to say: "I'm so sick of this 'how I portray Black men in my books.' I'm sick of it. I'm really sick of it. I write about characters who are at odds for whatever reason and who are experiencing some level of conflict. And, my feeling is, in general, that men cause women grief. They do. They can love us, but they cause us problems as well. I'm a novelist. I'm not writing a fairy tale, so I write about problems."
She said many critics don't whine "about some of this stuff going on in this urban lit — and these folks are killing and murdering each other — and there are people out here who seem to love that."
While "Getting to Happy" debuted at No. 4 on The New York Times Bestseller List, McMillan shares that joy with the fact that a good friend and fellow writer Isabel Wilkerson is also on the non-fiction side of the list with her new book, "The Warmth of Other Suns." Both writers' books were released on the same day. And, McMillan gives props to Ntozake Shange and her sister playwright Ifa Bayeza, whose book "Some Sing, Some Cry" is getting praise. Now, "if we can get a brother on the bestseller's list, too," she said, clasping her hands.