Dollar Bill Y'all

Terry McMillan

How Stella Got Her Groove Back


I MEAN NO disrespect to Terry McMillan when I call her a popularizer. The author of Waiting to Exhale produces clean, breezy prose that makes sense as it goes; her novels connect all the dots and solve all the mysteries that in Toni Morrison's books remain incomplete, wanting, raw. Take the thorny tangle of black gender relations: In both book and film, Exhale made men beside the point, presenting them less as characters than term projects for each heroine on her path to increased self-esteem--and as comic anecdotes for mass female bonding.

With her first post-Exhale novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, McMillan seems set on popularizing a topic that up till now has been largely addressed fictionally within a nascent genre of black male writing best typed as the "I've-been-to-Harvard-but-I-ain't-never-been-to-me" school. This is a novel, in other words, about black wealth. It is not, however, a novel about shunning the self-satisfied company of the white upper-middle class, or finding wisdom in the ghetto, or getting punished by a racist society for the effrontery of claiming blackness and success. It is not in any sense about guilt--unless you think that a guilt repressed tends to explode as glee.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back follows a divorced single mother and securities analyst from life as a conspicuous consumer of BMWs, CDs, personal trainers, vacation homes, "plants rugs toilets and sinks" (Stella apparently refuses to buy commas) to a new existence as a conspicuous consumer (of BMWs, CDs, etc.) with a gorgeous fiancé and a lucrative career as an artist. A romantic fantasy, you might say. Restless in her affluent northern California suburbia, son off vacationing with dad, Stella decides she needs wants deserves her own vacation from boring job nagging sister house chores celibacy. So she books a first-class ticket to Jamaica, buys seven bathing suits and a load of sundresses, and shocks her sister, who cannot believe she's going to a foreign country alone.

Not that Stella plans on exploring or anything. She stays at one of those everything-included resorts where you don't even have to tip. Stella's few ventures into non-tourist Jamaica are inadvertently (I'm pretty sure) comical: On a hot horse ride past patched tin shacks, she whines, "I wish I could get off this horse... and find an ice cold bottle of Evian." At first sickened by the lack of electricity, Stella soon realizes that what with the lovely scenery and stable communities, the poor are "probably better off much better off than I thought." To support the locals, Stella consciously commits unsolicited tipping ("It's a black thang") and buys a couple grand worth of CDs, shirts, and trinkets.

Back at the resort, the hard-bodied 42-year-old finds all eyes are upon her, including those of Winston, a young Jamaican with "chiseled" cheekbones and a sweet smell of citrus (Escape by Calvin Klein, as Stella duly notes). Seductions commence, with the lingering complication/enticement of a 22-year age difference. McMillan juxtaposes the freshness of this boy product with the painstakingly dissected sights and smells of bodies less perfectly toned, deodorized, shaved, shorn, douched, wiped, and waxed. In this marketplace of lust, any body not polished and primed for sale will be marked out for social humiliation.

Although Stella worries about coming off like "that old lady in that Richard Gere gigolo movie" (even emotions are like products), she immediately starts buying Winston tons of stuff. Her relationship with her son is also expressed in terms of commerce: The one time she really went off on him, she confesses, was when he put a $2,300 dent in her BMW. McMillan's idea of character description here is citing salary and resemblance to Wesley Snipes.

It sounds like satire, I know. And yet McMillan's chummy first-person stream of unconsciousness wants us to laugh with Stella rather than at her. The lovers' clinch at novel's end is meant to be less celebrative of passion than, again, a woman's recovery of her inner self. That this recovery depends so much on cash shouldn't surprise anyone who's read McMillan's previous books: From Mama to Exhale, there's been a gradual distancing of upwardly mobile characters of the author's generation from their poorer parents. With Stella, mama (read: accountability) is finally dead and gone, everybody's got a degree and a car phone, and you only go back to the 'hood to get your hair braided.

That this arc follows Terry McMillan's exponential success as a writer, I don't doubt. That it also may stand as a potent if simplified fantasy of black self-ownership and purchasing power, I couldn't deny. It's easy enough for me, raised in white middle-class security, to disparage the lure and importance of the dollar. And it's easy enough for me to claim that you can't buy a life.

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