Getting to Happy: Ultimately Satisfying
As a rule, I’m not much of a consumer of “chick lit.” But there were several reasons that lured me into reading Getting to Happy.
First, there are precious few female black authors active today. One reason I read is to hear from other voices, and get a different perspective on the world. To see it through eyes that are not my own. As a white lady, I go out of my way to read black authors. Particularly authors as influential as Terry McMillan has been in the past.
Second, I was too young to appreciate Waiting to Exhale. I was only 20 when it was published, and I thought old people were boring. Now that I myself am a boring old person, I was curious to see what McMillan might have to offer me.
And finally, I will not deny a prurient interest in McMillan’s private life, which has often served as the basis for her fiction in the past. I could act like I didn’t have a gawker’s curiosity about the book that would come out of a woman who said such ugly things about her ex during their divorce.
On all counts I was thoroughly satisfied by the experience.
“Chick lit” is a term which is often used as a pejorative, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s simply another literary style, like magical realism or the picaresque novel. Chick lit novels tend to emphasize emotional content over action. Readers seeking conventional plot pacing and trajectory will often come away baffled, and such is the case here.
McMillan devotes one chapter to a single telephone call. Another chapter, of the same length, covers one character’s entire three month-long stay in Paris. I was bemused to note that near the end of the book she dedicates roughly the same number of words to describing a character’s life-changing event on one page, and describing another character’s lunch on the facing page.
Between the shifting narrative perspective and the similarities between the characters themselves (who have been friends for several decades by the time this novel takes place), it sometimes seems that we are witnessing McMillan herself, splintered like a broken mirror, with each shard talking to us from a slightly different angle. Many characters; one McMillan.
There are many oddities about Getting to Happy, but it was often the oddities which kept me reading, the way that a small flaw is often what makes a woman truly beautiful. Example: two separate characters mention that they have not experienced an orgasm in the __ years since they separated from their partners. But surely they realize…?
Structural qualms aside, McMillan is able to bring her characters vividly to life. Although I sometimes had trouble distinguishing between them. At one point I had to stop, divide a page into quarters, and write out notes about each of the four characters so that I could keep them straight.
Savannah, Bernardine, Robin and Gloria seemed like real-world women facing real-world problems. If some of those problems are ultimately solved perhaps too easily, who am I to quibble? By the time I was halfway through the book, I genuinely wanted each character to have a happy ending, and I didn’t particularly care how it happened.