By Lisa Page
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; C05
GETTING TO HAPPY
By Terry McMillan
Viking. 375 pp. $27.95
In her break-out bestseller, "Waiting to Exhale" (1992), Terry McMillan celebrated female bonding. Girlfriends assumed top status in the hierarchy of important relationships for women. The novel, about four black women living in Phoenix in the late 1980s, depicted professional burn-out, romantic betrayal and survival. These were women in their late 30s and early 40s, providing solace to one another in a way that family members, husbands and boyfriends did not. They partied together, cried together and, ultimately, recovered together.
McMillan's new novel, "Getting to Happy," is a sequel that resumes the story some 15 years later. All four women are back, but this time, of course, they're middle-aged. The issues of their youth have morphed into new ones. There are children now from failed relationships and grandchildren, too, along with failed businesses and second mortgages. Each of the four is in her 50s, or about to be, and not quite sure what to do with herself.
There's Savannah, a TV news producer. She's unhappily married to Isaac, a landscaper "in love with wood." Isaac is also in love with porn and spends more time on the computer than with his wife. And he's a Republican, which Savannah finds unacceptable.
Robin is an insurance executive, a single mother and a compulsive shopper. The father of her daughter is in jail. She has a long history of sexual relationships with men that go nowhere, but she clings to one dream: getting married in a white dress. She recently discovered online dating.
Bernadine is between jobs and the former owner of Sweet Tooth, a defunct restaurant. Her children are away at school, leaving her alone to mull over her failed romances. Her first husband left her for his receptionist, and No. 2 betrayed her, too. Bernadine has retreated into prescription drugs and spends most of her days anaesthetizing herself.
Gloria is the only one happily married. She's a former hairdresser who manages her own salon. Her son is a policeman with three children and a wife of questionable moral stature. But Gloria is happy, at least in the early pages of the book.
McMillan has said she didn't plan to write a sequel, but her old characters "began to reclaim their place in my heart, and, like old friends you haven't seen since college, I wondered how they might be faring now." She fleshes them out by shifting the point of view, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes in third, resulting in a crosshatch of perspectives. Her dialogue remains superb.
These women have all kinds of contemporary challenges, including elderly mothers, deadbeat dads, hard-up sisters and a changing job market. They've gained weight, gone through menopause and suffered memory loss. They're lonely. They've stopped being social creatures. They used to "run their mouths on the phone half the night," but now they e-mail and text each other.
"Apparently we're too damn old to have fun in public places," muses Savannah. But occasionally they get together for Blockbuster Night, where they watch bootleg DVDs and sip mojitos. Together, they voice their frustrations. "I find it grossly unfair that God rigged this whole thing so men seem to get better-looking as they get older and women simply age out. Why is it that their wrinkles make them sexy and more distinguished," asks Savannah, "while ours make us look old and unattractive?"
They decide, individually and together, to upgrade their lives, to "get happy."
The difference between this book and "Waiting to Exhale" is that "happy" has a different meaning now. For these women, it's no longer about the perfect job or the perfect man. It's a more complicated notion. The theme of addiction carries through the novel, and that's no accident. McMillan suggests that Bernadine's struggle with antidepressants, Robin's trips to the mall and Gloria's struggle with food are all symptoms of the same thing. The notion of "getting to happy" means doing away with self-delusion. And, according to McMillan, it also means forgiveness. The outrage and the disappointment so vividly portrayed in the opening chapters must ultimately melt into understanding, even love, if possible.
Some readers may feel that "Getting to Happy" doesn't offer many surprises. The ladies learn to undo their vices, to visualize better lives and, through meditation, to breathe. And while this makes sense, in terms of the characters, it feels somewhat anticlimactic given the earlier chapters. Still, there's an integrity that isn't compromised here. McMillan clearly respects her characters and her readers, too.
Page is a visiting professor of creative writing at George Washington University.