Bernadine, Gloria, Savannah and Robin cannot stop talking. From the moment you open Getting to Happy, which picks up where Waiting to Exhale left off fifteen years later, you are drawn into their lives. Each is seeking an emotion that eludes some – genuine happiness.
For decades, millions of Afro-American women, largely ignored by mainstream culture or portrayed through the myopia of stereotypes, have connected with the work of New York Times bestselling author, Terry McMillan. “These women started to reclaim my heart,” McMillan writes, in her author’s note. Indeed, so many of us have not forgotten their struggles as they so closely mirror our own attempts to balance relationships, work and family.
Savannah, long a seeker of love, is married to Isaac whom she helps succeed as an entrepreneur. Yet, she finds herself questioning the strength of their relationship and his fidelity. “My world started shrinking after I married Mr. Wonderful,” she says bluntly. Bernadine, remarried after a bitter divorce from John, discovers that husband number two is swindling money from her. “Pills have helped her fake it,” McMillan writes. “Helped her to smile when she was supposed to, to hold back tears when they were inappropriate…”
Gullible Robin, who once naively sought affection through sex, is more settled but not content, dividing time between Sparrow, her creative and intelligent daughter and an unfulfilling corporate career. Ever observant, Sparrow comments on the obvious lack of joy in her mother’s life and bluntly remarks: “You waste like ten amazing hours a day going to a job you get nothing out of…” While Gloria floats on a placid sea of peace, her marriage to the attentive Marvin intact, she experiences a seismic shift so strong that her world crumbles instantaneously: “What Gloria remembered about that day was falling. First to the floor. Then being picked up by her son…”
Ultimately, McMillan crafts a novel which deftly wrestles with the fleeting nature of happiness. Similar in structure to Waiting to Exhale, each chapter features a different woman’s outlook. While this connects readers to the four main characters, secondary voices such as Onika, Bernadine’s daughter, returning from college and coming to terms with her sexuality or Sheila, Savannah’s younger stressed sister, do not feel as developed.
Elements such as the reemergence of John, Bernadine’s ex- husband turned friend or Michael, Robin’s pudgy ex-lover now hunk, feel forced, as if McMillan is working to tie it all up too neatly. Still, the sense of community among family and friends runs as a consistent thread throughout much of McMillan’s work, beginning with Mama, her first novel and Getting to Happy does not differ here. Four very different friends return to fans, breathing slower and searching for the joy within the journey. Pieces of happiness flavor life, helping us digest the bitter and sweet, McMillan seems to insist, enjoy it all.