THE INTERRUPTION OF EVERYTHING

By Terry McMillan

Viking. 365 pp. $25.95

In her novels and short stories, Terry McMillan has proved gifted at addressing the concerns of modern African American women, particularly with regard to romance and the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters.

These are not especially unusual preoccupations, and McMillan's deceptively easy-looking technique has misled dozens of wannabes into parroting her style. In contrast, dazzled by their role model's extraordinary success, they went for the sales without investing the necessary sweat or developing the most critical factor in McMillan's rise: talent. She has amassed her vast following via a cutting wit, a knack for capturing the way real people think and speak, a fearless willingness to engage complex, painful issues, and an unerring instinct for fashioning characters that enchant readers' imaginations.

There is no shortage of such characters in her latest novel, a warmhearted, largely meditative tale of midlife restlessness in contemporary Northern California. Foremost among them is the narrator, 44-year-old Marilyn Grimes, a talented artist who works part-time at a craft store. When the story begins, she is devoting a great deal of thought to -- no surprise here -- romance and motherhood. She suffers from boredom, empty-nest syndrome and the onset of menopause. She fears that all of these, plus the possibility that she is pregnant, will lead to the interruption of everything.

Marilyn's daughter is grown and keeping house with a man. Her sons, 19-year-old twins, are away at college. She thinks her children don't need her anymore, aside from regular handouts of money. "I'm not saying I regret what I've given them," she complains to her mother-in-law, Arthurine. "I just feel like nobody really cares what I'm doing as long as I keep doing what I've always done for them." "Nobody" includes Leon, Marilyn's prosperous husband of 23 years. He is a 45-year-old engineer who lately has gone from bore to boor. "He's just been blurting out what he's thinking and some of it is insulting or stupid or embarrassing and he doesn't seem to know he's saying it," Marilyn observes with horror. "And on top of all this, he's grown quite fond of those velour leisure suits that zip and has been wearing them to work on casual Fridays." That's in addition to the bushels of oversize hip-hop clothes he keeps piling up in his closet, and the shiny new motorcycle he has parked in the driveway.

As Marilyn copes with hot flashes and a husband who seems to have lost interest in her, she begins to second-guess herself and reconsider all that she has held sacred. "I just don't buy all the testimonials by the experts who claim that mature love is more comforting than romantic and that as time passes it's childish to think you'll feel the thrills of romance like you felt in the beginning," she says. "A tremor every once in a while would be nice." In the midst of an argument with her husband, she confesses that she's running out of steam. "I'm also tired, Leon. Tired of being the mule that carries the burden for everything and everybody in this house." Like Zora Neale Hurston, to whom she gently alludes in that passage, McMillan seldom turns her focus from the immensity of black women's labors. There's little doubt that black women often carry their communities on their backs; what adds to that substantial weight is the frequent failure of their beneficiaries to appreciate their efforts. Because McMillan has enough faith in her readers to forgo the temptation of spelling everything out for them, she wisely illustrates this tragic inequity primarily by showing instead of telling. Although Marilyn offers occasional and comparatively mild comments to this effect, she is mostly shown performing tasks for her family rather than lecturing them (and us) about all she has done.

While such themes might seem to lead naturally into male-bashing, McMillan seldom goes there -- and when she does, she doesn't linger. Instead, she concentrates on the bonds between women, how they use their friendships to bolster and enrich one another. Marilyn's two best friends are Bunny and Paulette, with whom she meets for "Private Pity Parties." They hold these events monthly, Marilyn says, "even if it just meant venting, bitching, or lamenting -- but mostly to help each other see ourselves more clearly." The gatherings provide opportunities for McMillan to show off the brisk banter and frank, free-flowing exchanges for which she is justly celebrated. The influence of her memorable dialogues can be detected in everything from UPN's hit comedy "Girlfriends" to the plethora of pallid McMillan imitations that continues to burden bookstore shelves. Most of these, bogged down in brand name-dropping and artless prose that too often crumbles into unwitting self-parody, lack McMillan's effervescent intelligence. Her sparkling repartee makes it easy to imagine her chuckling as she writes.

Not all of the passages in The Interruption of Everything rise to her usual standard. There are more than enough run-on sentences that extend to full paragraphs. For example, when it appears that Marilyn may be pregnant, she tells her friend Paulette, "And don't you dare say anything about how wonderful this is when you and I both know how we make fun of all the overforty mothers we see sitting in the parks on organized play dates marveling at their little miracles for hours and leaping up from the bench to convince the little farts to eat a spoonful of blueberry yogurt or an apple slice or carrot stick from the Ziploc bags -- none of which they are remotely interested in and then they'll try to push that little straw from the juice carton into their closed mouth and finally accept that no means no and praise the Lord if they cough more than twice they must be choking or if the kid so much as sniffles or scrapes a knee -- at the mere sight of blood it's off to the nearest emergency room they go where they will be asked if they are the child's grandmother, and now here I am in the same boat." Such ramblings are meant to convey the rhythm of actual speech, at which McMillan customarily excels, but here they merely slow things down.

Similarly, Marilyn's fantasies about her first husband, to whom she was briefly married, unfold in romance-novel cliches: "I want him to dust my heart with hope. Wipe away the cobwebs covering my soul. Open all the clogged-up drains where my energy has been trapped. And then I want to flood. I want him to be the river I seek."

Far more affecting are scenes depicting Marilyn's visits to her childhood home in Fresno, where her ailing 67-year-old mother lives with Marilyn's drug-addicted sister and her two children. McMillan renders the old neighborhood with a painter's careful eye. "It breaks my heart to see what used to be vibrant yellow, pink, and proud peach stucco bungalows now cracked and crumbling," Marilyn admits. "The street is now lined with a small array of mesh fences in varying condition. . . . Behind each fence is a tiny patch of grass that is the front yard, many of which display an assortment of things that they feel requires protection: an old mattress that won't fit inside the blue recycle bin; a car parked directly on the grass or blocking the front door into the house itself; steel barbecue drums; and an awful lot of machinery."

Her portraits of people are equally evocative. On her way to an appointment with a hairstylist, Marilyn sees "a six-foot girl who can't be more than twenty-three but weighing in the neighborhood of three hundred pounds coming down the hall in tight gray leggings and a Lakers sleeveless jersey. Her thighs look like Christmas hams. She must have a thousand thin braids in her hair, half of which are struggling to cover breasts that are bigger than my head. . . . When she sees me, she smiles. . . . It's obvious that she's not only pretty but also one of the sexiest big women I've ever seen."

Marilyn's willingness to recognize such qualities where others may be inclined to overlook them is consistent throughout the novel. Her nuanced approach to life encourages her to look for deeper explanations. Whereas her friend Paulette says all men "seem to go a little nuts after they hit their forties," Marilyn tries to fathom her husband's difficulties instead of just dismissing him as a head case. Her willingness to listen inspires him to be candid, and, tentatively, a genuine conversation begins. Whether are not they resolve their differences will not be disclosed here. I will say that I'm holding out hope for Marilyn, whom I came to care about a great deal as the novel proceeded.

"I need beauty in my life and I want to be able to share it," she says. In my view, that's hardly too much to ask. *

Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.

Terry McMillan holds the Excellence in Literature award during the 2002 Essence Awards in Universal City, Calif.