Getting to Happy or Getting to Nowhere in a Hurry?
I was in college when I read my first Terry McMillan book. I was taking a course in African-American literature, and the last novel for the semester was Waiting to Exhale. I loved that book. When I finished reading it, I shared my copy with all my friends, and afterwards we spent hours discussing the book, wondering who among us would end up identifying most with which character (Savannah, Robin, Bernadine, Gloria -- I was almost always determined to be a Gloria, which bugged me at the time, because Gloria always seemed so stable and boring), and how these characters would eventually end up.
Fifteen years later, McMillan has published Getting to Happy, a sequel to that novel I loved so much back in college, and now we can finally see what has become of those ladies, their lives, and their loves. And while, as the title suggests, everyone is still working on themselves, trying to get to happy, nobody (except Gloria, who remains wonderfully stable and refreshingly boring) seems to be getting anywhere, really.
It's weird, because the original novel seemed to be so full of promise. Despite what we had been told up until that point, life did not end at 30, or even beyond, and maybe things don't work out the way we expect them to, or even anywhere close, but if we learn to trust in ourselves and our true friends, we can make our way in the world well enough.
But this sequel seems to suggest otherwise: that making our way well enough is not good enough, and that there are no happy endings.
This strikes me as very unfortunate, because these characters deserve more than a just a fleeting bit of happiness. The losses that these women experience -- infidelity, insecurity, addiction, death -- are ones that are unfortunately not uncommon for any woman, in any stage of her life. But for these women to go through so much all at once seems unnecessarily cruel and almost unsettling. Like, really? Not one of these ladies could be allowed hang on to their happily ever after?
Of course, life is not a fairy tale, and McMillan writes "real life" as well as any other modern novelist. The dialogue and interactions between these characters is extremely realistic, not unlike looking in on one of my mother's high school reunions (because, now and fifteen years ago, these women are closer to my mother's age than they are to mine, and as they get older, the age difference seems more pronounced). But even still, I feel like there is something else there, some other force -- the author -- trying to give herself closure in her relationship to these characters, rather than her trying to give the characters themselves closure. As McMillan herself says in her Author's Note, "All four of [these ladies] got on my last nerve long after their shelf life." You can tell, in the way the storytelling ends without the story actually ending.