Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Who Asked You
by Terry McMillan
2013, 978—670-78569-8 $27.95 hc, US
Terry McMillan dedicates her eighth novel, Who Asked You?, “to mothers, who do the best they can.” Her central character is Betty Jean, (B.J.) a hardworking African American woman nearing retirement age whose family is causing her heartache. She works for the room service department of a hotel, and needs care for her husband, Lee David, who has Alzheimers. She and Lee David have provided a stable family life for their children in an ethnically mixed Los Angeles neighbourhood, but the grown children are not there for her in her time of need. Quentin, her eldest, a chiropractor, has distanced himself from the family. Dexter, her middle son, is in prison for a carjacking. Trinetta, her daughter, is a single mother who too often drops off her young sons for B.J. to babysit.
Betty Jean’s maternal experiences will strike a chord with many mothers, not just African American ones. “I felt just like a pie,” she remembers. “Everybody wanted a piece of me and barely left me with a little crust…I won’t lie; I wish Lee David and I could have been a little more like the Cosbys.”
Betty Jean’s feelings of failure are worsened by unsolicited advice from her sisters, Arlene and Venetia, who feel that their better economic situation gives them licence to criticize. The sisters are blind to some serious issues in their own domestic lives. Blame and criticism become contagious. B.J. not only receives negative messages but dishes them out. She replies sternly to her son’s flood of correspondence from prison, urging him to face up to his culpability and the impracticality of his plans for his future. She lectures Trinetta, who is struggling with drug addiction.
Betty Jean’s witty, confiding voice draws us in. The story is presented in the first person through fifteen major characters, each one taking a turn, but B.J. has the largest say. It is a challenge to make each voice unique, and McMillan succeeds. Quentin, for example, has an elaborate way of expressing himself, while Dexter’s voice is full of legalese, self-help jargon and self-pity.
Early in the story, Trinetta drops off young Luther and Ricky for “a few days” and never returns. The active youngsters drain B.J.’s energy and bank account. Grandparents raising grandchildren has become widespread in recent years and is not confined to any particular ethnic or racial group. B.J.’s struggles lead her to consult her grandsons’ school principal, Warren Daniels, a dedicated, kindly man close to her age who urges her to seek legal custody of the boys.
Terry McMillan’s social realism is unique because her characters are spirited, down-to-earth people who try to fix what’s not working in their lives. B.J.’s up-and-down relationship with her sisters is typical of most families, and during the “up” phases, they offer practical, tangible help with the children. Though the children are a burden, they force B.J. to rise to the occasion and summon up all her resources, with the result that they become her major achievement in life.
Fifteen major characters are a lot for a reader to keep straight, but the presence of many personalities allows McMillan to address a range of contemporary social issues. The American prison system, with its many African American inmates, long sentences and lack of rehabilitation, is shown through an inmate’s eyes. Another character shows the stress of being in the closet. Through B.J.’s white friend, Tammy, McMillan shows young people with an incredible sense of entitlement. Tammy’s daughter announces that she is six weeks pregnant by her aspiring actor boyfriend, and that they will be moving in with Tammy while he takes classes and goes to auditions. How will the young woman earn money? She’s “weighing her options”!
McMillan’s novel consists largely of interior monologue, varied by epistolary sections and dialogue. The late Maeve Binchy, whose recent works favoured dialogue, told aspiring writers (in The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club, Orion Publishing) that description slows the pace and that readers often skip over it. As her career developed she pared down descriptive passages in her books or omitted them entirely. McMillan operates from the same aesthetic principle.
Writers often assume that today’s readers can picture locations all over the world, thanks to TV and movies. While readers certainly don’t need Dickensian descriptions, we need enough to orient ourselves. I would have liked more description in Who Asked You? My favourite McMillan novel, Disappearing Acts, with its good balance of description and dialogue, was a rich reading experience without obscuring the gender, racial and class issues.
McMillan’s endings may not be entirely happy but always offer some resolution. In Who Asked You? the theme of the novel is made clear in B.J.’s letter to Dexter, who is back in prison:
I have decided that I am not going to write you any letters with negative things in them because all it will do is make you feel bad and I know you already feel bad. All of us make mistakes… and if we’re lucky, some of us learn from them…I’m still glad you are my son
This excerpt crystallizes the warmth and humanity of Who Asked You?.