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The No Luck Club

Getting to Happy

by Terry McMillan

Viking | 400 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell


A crazy black woman shouted on a Brooklyn bus one day, "(Black) men lie!"  This seems to be the opening theme in Terry McMillan’s Getting to Happy, a variation on the romance genre made popular in her previous narratives, Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. This novel is a follow-up on four Black middle-aged women, Gloria, Robin, Savannah, and Bernadine, from these previous books. Here they reconstruct their lives after various kinds of trauma, beginning with their troubled relationships with spouses, ex-spouses, midlife crises, and drug addiction.

    The worst of these problems happens, in the case of Gloria, not because of her husband, Marvin, but to him. While running an errand, he becomes the victim of a drive-by shooting. Even in upscale Phoenix, Arizona, where these women live, Black people suffer from gang violence. His death echoes the kind of headlines read every day in some parts of the country.

    Yet, it begs a question. Why is the only decent black man in the novel the one who dies a horrible death? Here we come to the theme in the aforementioned books and many of those in this genre. That is, decent Black men are an endangered species, especially because of the homicidal tendencies of their brothers. Even more disturbing: do black male criminals get away with killing decent black men?  In this book, they do. When the police officers inform Gloria's son, himself a detective, of what has happened, he asks. "Do you have anybody in custody?"

     "Not yet. When we got to the scene, they were of course, already gone. You know they do this shit, man."

     This particular tragedy could be a book in itself. In it, McMillan presents what could have been a powerful symbol of loss. Just before hearing the news, Gloria drops a cartoon holding 18 eggs. Marvin's death comes on the eve of their 14th wedding anniversary. If the reader expects an in-depth look at harrowing grief, presaged by this image, they will find that is not what is offered. Instead, McMillan gives short shrift to the pain of this character.

   True, we see that Gloria binges on food. She (Gloria) says her friends comfort her during crying jags, and she takes a chance on a business venture. Yet, these are examples of the success of having coped with help of her support system. What about the details of the day-to-day survival through wounding grief? As shown in this book, the grieving seems all too brief.

     Meanwhile, Gloria's three friends are dealing with pain of a different kind from their menfolk. Their spouses and former spouses are, in one case, a bigamist, in another, a porn addict, and in a third, a lazy loser. Once again, we see that Black men are under threat, but not just from each other. Because in this novel, they lack morality and ethics, and they have no life force to sustain them--except from their spouses.

      Said spouses have sacrificed financial security, and in one case, health, for these men. Why? As outlined in this book, Black women should expect to suffer at the hands of Black men. Our men are a danger to themselves and us, but they're all we've got or deserve. Interestingly, two of the men in the novel change their ways and seek to either apologize or make amends to their wronged former wives. However, the men do so after having been wronged themselves or imprisoned. The women in this book lament a great deal about the same thing, but seem to learn nothing. Neither does the reader.

     That's because the book lacks clarity. First, it is difficult to distinguish one woman from another. The speech and tone are almost identical for all four of them.

When Savannah finds out her husband is a porn addict, she calls her sister for comfort.

     "No, I just found out Isaac's been visiting a bunch of porn sites for the longest and I'm a little pissed off."

     "I hope this isn't all you're tripping about?"

     "If you saw the shit he's been doing and how much money he's been spending. I think you'd been a little pissed too."

     "Girl all men spend money on porn sites. I'm grateful for 'em, if you want to know the truth. Saves me a lot of unnecessary energy."

     Or, in another example, Robin is advising Bernadine on her (Bernadine's) upcoming blind date.

     "Just remember you're not auditioning to be a Vegas dancer, so tone it down for everybody's sake. Call me if anything changes. Bye. And good luck. I swear to God, what some of us will do to get laid."

     So much for the comfort of sisterhood. Although in fairness, the friends are nicer to each other in various parts of the book. Still, it’s equally difficult to tell the children of these women apart, except for one in particular.

     Diamond, Gloria's granddaughter, doesn't speak. We find out it's because she is being abused by her mother. The child hasn't spoken for years, and nobody has figured out why. This is so incongruous that it screams. These characters are all professional women, but none of them ask the obvious questions about why this child is not verbal. This bombshell comes toward the end of the book. Once again, it is a topic that could be a book in itself.  Yet, it is blown past.

      The second reason the book and its purpose are unclear is its scary humor. When one of the young women totals her mother's car, her mother laughs hysterically. Initially, this would seem to be from a sense of relief. Her daughter is unhurt, and the car is replaceable. However, the daughter has taken the driver's test numerous times and failed because she never studied for it. Are there mothers, even in novels, who would allow their children to take a driver's test without studying for it? Would they allow their kids to drive? If anything, the problems that these two children have speak to a level of dysfunctionality in both the mothers and their children.

      Another troubling problem is that of Bernadine's addiction to pills. She develops the habit after learning that her second husband is a bigamist and has ruined her financially. She gets into a treatment facility and seems to be fully recovered very quickly---too quickly. Once again, there is more emphasis on the solution than the process.

     However, this book presents a bigger issue for the characters, the readers, and this genre. That is, an unwillingness to identify abnormal and almost pathological behavior.

    Black men who are bigamists, or porn addicts, or abusive in any way are not normal or the norm. That distinction is never really made in this book, or in this genre.

     Towards the end of the book, McMillan introduces disturbing and disturbed women characters. Perhaps this is a way of looking at both genders. Still, this inability to deliver the characters' voices and personalities, a definition of issues, and even humor that is relevant to the story, is perplexing.

   Not only were these issues for this book, but they are issues for other books in this genre. Craft is lacking. Whatever the formula for a genre, the reader has to be able to follow the story. Equally important, serious problems can't be introduced and abandoned without explanation if the reader is to respect the work.

   A crazy woman thinks that all Black men lie. The rest of us know that some Black

men, do.

Loretta H. Campbell is a writer, teacher and activist with the New York office of the National Writer’s Union.

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