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Here's the pity: "Getting to Happy" never arrives.

Not for readers, anyway.

It's hard to write that. Heaven knows that all of us who've read Terry McMillan's novels over the years want this book to be completely delicious. She gave us "Waiting to Exhale," she gave us "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," and the list goes on.

But there was particular anxiety tied up in this newest offering.

Why?

Because it's the sequel to McMillan's monster hit from the early 1990s. "Waiting to Exhale" was made into a film in 1995, you'll recall, starring the still-adorable Whitney Houston. It struck a cultural nerve because it spoke to a certain female zeitgeist of collegial obstinacy: the women-together-and-unwilling-to-settle ethos. Both book and movie made McMillan a household name.

Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a sequel. It puts a lot of pressure on a writer, in fact; an almost unfair amount of pressure.

The other reason everyone wanted this book to be fantastic is McMillan's own history. She's been through a rough decade. Marriage to the much-younger man who inspired "Stella" turned sour, there was a big lawsuit, each said nasty things about the other. Dirty laundry, out in public. In McMillan's acknowledgments section here, she lays out her troubles bluntly: "The last few years have been rough," she begins. "It's hard to write when you're angry, or numb. It's hard to do anything when you're angry or numb."

And so we wanted "Getting to Happy" to be another smash hit. But the truth is, it just isn't. It fizzles like a droopy ballon rather than sparking like champagne.

The four characters we remember so well are all present: Bernadine, Savannah, Gloria and Robin, living in the Phoenix area with various children, spouses and boyfriends.

McMillan's biggest decision as a writer here was to make the four women as much older as we are: she aged them all about 15 years, as if they had gone on living in the interval between "Exhale" and this new book. That means that instead of fictional problems with marriage and childbearing and the like, we have instead problems with teenage children, health issues like diabetes and obesity, addiction, and the onset of menopause.

Yikes. These ladies have indeed come a long way.

Other than the giant leap forward in time, the characters stay pretty consistent with their earlier selves: Savannah is smart but mixed-up, Bernadine takes too much upon herself, Gloria tries not to be needy, and Robin fixates on the physical.

But the dialogue between the four friends, which we remember as light and effortless, here creaks along. In some places it loses its woodenness and we are reminded of how good McMillan can be: In one scene, in which the friends comfort one of their number who has been bereaved, they come into her home and take care of her for an evening in utter silence -- a beautiful, and real, note.

Much of the rest could have done with an editor's hand, however. Passages include similar phrases, a couple of pages apart, as if someone moved copy around and didn't weed out repetition. Screeds against Republicans (who are likened to Nazis) and the Bush administration are peppered into the text at random and do not fit the rest of the work. Some passages -- especially when McMillan is writing about Savannah -- are told in a first-person voice, but others aren't. At times the characters do things that make them seem less than real: a small-business owner sitting on a couch in her own business, flipping through magazines while others work (I know business owners; how often does that happen?) or another character buying her 16-year-old daughter a new Prius when she finishes her road test. In this economy?

Here's a sample passage: "I'd probably be in the nuthouse if it weren't for my girlfriends: Bernadine, Robin and Gloria. Fifteen years ago, we thought we were hot s---. I was thirty-six and had just moved here from Denver, where I'd been a publicist for the gas company. Thrill thrill Times have certainly changed. We're all busy. We don't hang out like we used to, don't run our mouths on the phone half the night the way we used to, don't gossip about each other the way we used to. We send e-mail or text. Who can be bothered reaching out all day long like teenagers? Forget about happy hour. (Do they still have them?) We haven't been drunk since 1999."

It all gets very confusing, and makes you want to go back to "Exhale" to make sure it's what you remembered it to be.

McMillan is a writer who, evidently, goes in streaks -- she can be hot, or she can perform at less than her best. Here, in "Getting to Happy," we don't get to exhale. But she surely has many more books in her, and as for the fabulous four?

Perhaps they're not done yet.

Charity Vogel is a News features reporter.

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>Getting to Happy

By Terry McMillan

Viking

400 pages, $28