Terry McMillan Essay - McMillan, Terry

McMillan, Terry


Terry McMillan 1951–

American novelist, short story writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of McMillan's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 50 and 61.

McMillan's best-selling novels Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), Waiting to Exhale (1992), and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996) describe the frustrations and hard-won pleasures associated with middle-class security and female autonomy—both financial and sexual—among African-American women in modern American society. While focusing on the everyday experiences of energetic, black female protagonists who overcome oppressive men and socioeconomic obstacles to achieve self-actualization, McMillan avoids aligning herself with any specific political or racial agenda. Through zesty, conversational prose and realistic dialogue, McMillan challenges stereotypical views of African-American women and speaks to a large, transracial audience.

Biographical Information

Born in Port Huron, Michigan, McMillan, the oldest of four children, was raised by her mother, a maid and auto factory worker; her parents were divorced when she was thirteen. McMillan became an avid reader while shelving books in a local library as a teenager, but was not exposed to African-American authors until several years later as a student at a Los Angeles community college. After dabbling in poetry, she published her First short story in 1976 at age twenty-five. McMillan earned a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a master's in Fine Arts at Columbia University, both in 1979. At age thirty, McMillan experienced an epiphany that prompted her to overcome a drug and alcohol addiction. In 1984, she gave birth to her son, Solomon. She published her first novel, Mama, in 1987, which she single-handedly promoted by writing several thousand letters to booksellers and arranging her own publicity tour. McMillan received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship the next year. She taught creative writing at the University of Wyoming in Laramie from 1987 to 1990, then at the University of Arizona in Tucson until 1992, where she was an associate professor. Her second novel, Disappearing Acts, was published in 1989, and Breaking Ice, an anthology of African-American fiction that she edited and introduced, was published in 1990. Wait-ing to Exhale, published two years later, was adapted into a popular Hollywood film in 1995. McMillan's fourth novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, became an instant bestseller upon its appearance in 1996 and was adapted for film in 1998.

Major Works

McMillan's fiction typically revolves around strong, intelligent African-American female characters whose personal crises and romantic entanglements mirror the conflicted aspirations of working-class and upwardly mobile black women. Mama relates the difficulties of a poor black family in Michigan and Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s. The protagonist, Mildred Peacock, is a twenty-seven-year-old mother of five who struggles against mounting bills and alcoholism to raise her children. When her abusive husband, Crook, leaves the family, Mildred takes on the full financial burden of the household by working odd jobs, hosting rent parties, and briefly working as a prostitute. Mildred is unable to find a suitable male counterpart and sinks further into depression, drink, and debt. In the end, a reconciliation with her daughter, Freda, a recovering alcoholic, and plans to attend community college offer her new hope. Disappearing Acts examines the strained love affair between Zora Banks, a college-educated music teacher and aspiring singer, and Franklin Swift, a high school dropout and perennially unemployed construction worker victimized by racial discrimination. Set in New York City, the narrative is presented through the alternating first-person monologues of Zora and Franklin, who disclose their respective expectations and disappointments. Though financially independent and despite Franklin's alcoholism and physical abuse, Zora bears Franklin's child and assumes the role of mother and provider. The novel ends as Zora plans to return to her family with their child, leaving Franklin and their relationship on uncertain terms. Waiting to Exhale explores the supportive friendship and romantic frustrations of four self-reliant, professional African-American women in their late thirties. Savannah Jackson is a successful television producer with material security but without a meaningful, long-term relationship. Bernadine Harris, a mother of two children, is divorcing her husband of eleven years after learning that he is having an affair with a younger white woman. Robin Stokes, an insurance underwriter, is single and unhappily dating a succession of deficient men. Gloria Matthews is a self-employed beauty shop owner in search of love, though resigned to the solace she finds in work, food, and caring for her teenage son. In the Phoenix, Arizona, setting, the four women discuss their careers, contemporary social ills, and single parenthood, and declaim the shortcomings of prospective black men, revealing their shared loneliness and deep longing for monogamous heterosexual relationships and conventional domestic arrangements. How Stella Got Her Groove Back recounts the fantasy vacation of Stella Payne, a forty-two-year-old affluent black security analyst and single mother who escapes to a luxury Jamaican resort for some much-needed rest. There she meets and falls in love with Winston Shakespeare, a handsome twenty-year-old chef-in-training. A passionate affair ensues on the island and at Stella's palatial California home, where she brings Winston to live with her and her son, Quincy. When Stella loses her lucrative job, she lives comfortably on savings while weighing the risks and benefits of a relationship with a man half her age. McMillan also served as editor of Breaking Ice, a collection of fifty-eight short stories and excerpts from novels by African-American writers including Trey Ellis, William Demby, Charles Johnson, Colleen McElroy, Darryl Pinckney, and Gloria Naylor. The anthology includes an introduction and short story, "Ma' Dear," by McMillan.

Critical Reception

McMillan is recognized as a prominent force in contemporary African-American women's fiction. Her first two novels, Mama and Disappearing Acts, received favorable critical attention and established her reputation as an innovative new voice of middle-class black America. She is also highly regarded for her work as editor of the anthology Breaking Ice. While some critics praise McMillan's direct, unpretentious style and authentic portrayal of African-American relationships and social concerns, others fault her for uneven prose, excessive use of profanity, and thinly veiled sociological commentary. Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back won enormous popularity and launched McMillan into celebrity status. Though some critics laud the humor and acerbic honesty of both, others disapprove of McMillan's interest in material wealth and conspicuous consumption over unresolved issues of racial discrimination and women's rights. Waiting to Exhale also elicited controversy for its unflattering portrayal of African-American men. Despite the intensity and wide appeal of McMillan's novels, her detractors assert that her work does not stand up to the literary fiction of acclaimed African-American authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, another huge commercial success, was dismissed by many critics as a superficial romance novel. Nevertheless, McMillan's engaging stories, appealing characters, and insightful commentary on recent American-American experience are considered a vital contribution to contemporary popular literature.

Principal Works

Mama (novel) 1987
Disappearing Acts (novel) 1989
Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction [editor] (short stories and excerpts) 1990
Waiting to Exhale (novel) 1992
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (novel) 1996


Thulani Davis (review date May 1990)

SOURCE: "Don't Worry, Be Buppie," in Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1990, pp. 26-8.

[In the following excerpt, Davis criticizes the assimilation of mainstream white cultural values in Disappearing Acts and contemporary African-American literature.]

Now that the '90s are at hand, it's inevitable that someone will announce a new generation of writers, folks who'll be the bridge to the next century. (WOW!) The "new generation" of African-American writers, novelist Terry McMillan said not too long ago, are "different from a generation before" because "they are not as race oriented, and they are not as protest oriented." I wondered at first who she was talking...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)

Charles R. Larson (review date 23 September 1990)

SOURCE: "No Time for Any Barriers," in Chicago Tribune Books, September 23, 1990, pp. 1, 4.

[In the following review, Larson offers praise for Breaking Ice, which he finds "brilliantly (and almost single-handedly) dispels a number of myths about contemporary African-American literature and the culture that has nourished it."]

The wonder of Terry McMillan's anthology of recent black fiction, Breaking Ice, is that it brilliantly (and almost single-handedly) dispels a number of myths about contemporary African-American literature and the culture that has nourished it. The scope of the stories repeatedly demonstrates the variety and the richness of...

(The entire section is 1086 words.)

C. J. Walker (review date September-October 1990)

SOURCE: "Intriguing Effort Misses Mark," in New Directions for Women, Vol. 19, No. 5, September-October, 1990, p. 19.

[In the following review, Walker finds shortcomings in Disappearing Acts.]

The book was a smooth read; it had an easy flow. But, I think more likely, expectation kept me reading because Terry McMillan's new book promised great things. Disappearing Acts alternates between first-person reflections, reactions and responses of Franklin and Zora.

Franklin introduces himself, "I'm tired of women. Black women in particular, cause that's about all I ever deal with." He continued to fill us in on his way in the world: "Basically, I guess...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 March 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Waiting to Exhale, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 15, March 23, 1992, p. 58.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Waiting to Exhale.]

A racy, zesty, irreverent and absorbing book with broad mainstream appeal, McMillan's third novel (after Mama and Disappearing Acts) tells the stories of four 30ish black women bound together in warm, supportive friendship and in their dwindling hopes of finding Mr. Right. Savannah, Bernadine, Robin and Gloria are successful professional or self-employed women living in Phoenix. All are independent, upwardly mobile and "waiting to exhale"—to stop holding their breaths...

(The entire section is 250 words.)

Terry McMillan with Wendy Smith (interview date 11 May 1992)

SOURCE: "Terry McMillan: The Novelist Explores African American Life From the Point of View of a New Generation;" in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 22, May 11, 1992, pp. 50-1.

[In the following interview, McMillan comments on the publication of her early fiction and her critical reception as an African-American writer.]

Terry McMillan blows into the Viking offices like a cool breeze off the bay in San Francisco, where she lives. She's toting two overstuffed carryalls, while her cab driver staggers under a garment bag crammed to bursting. She directs him to a nearby closet, warmly greets the Viking receptionist, then flings her arms around her editor, Dawn Seferian,...

(The entire section is 2184 words.)

Charles R. Larson (review date 31 May 1992)

SOURCE: "The Comic Unlikelihood of Finding Mr. Right," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 31, 1992, p. 6.

[In the following review, Larson offers favorable assessment of Waiting to Exhale.]

In the climactic scene of Terry McMillan's wickedly acerbic third novel, Waiting to Exhale, four African-American women—Gloria, Savannah, Bernadine and Robin, all between the ages of 34 and 38—celebrate the birthday of the youngest by drinking five bottles of champagne and talking about their on-going problems with men. All of them are single and/or recently divorced and "waiting to exhale"—yearning for the ideal mate who takes your breath away, although he never seems to...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Paula C. Barnes (review date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Waiting to Exhale, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 56-7.

[In the following review, Barnes offers praise for Waiting to Exhale, which she describes as "an important book" that "traces the problems of 'real' women in a real world."]

Within weeks of its publication, Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale appeared on The New York Times best-seller list exceeding the success of her first two novels, Mama and Disappearing Acts. Although specifically it tells the story of four African-American women, Waiting to Exhale addresses the dilemma of career women who want it all.


(The entire section is 435 words.)

Frances Stead Sellers (review date 6 November 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Waiting to Exhale, in Times Literary Supplement, November 6, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Sellers finds only "modest" literary merit in Waiting to Exhale, but notes its appeal among "glitzy, commercial women's novels."]

Terry McMillan's novel, Waiting to Exhale, raced up the New York Times bestseller lists immediately after its publication in the United States early last summer, and has lingered near the top for twenty-three weeks. There are already more than 700,000 copies in print. Paperback rights for the book startled the recession-conscious publishing industry by selling for $2.64 million, and McMillan's...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Darryl Pinckney (review date 4 November 1993)

SOURCE: "The Best of Everything," in New York Review of Books, November 4, 1993, pp. 33-7.

[In the following excerpt, Pinckney praises the sincerity, force, and humor of Waiting to Exhale and discusses the novel's place within contemporary African-American literature and culture.]

Fannie Lou Hamer once said that she didn't want to be liberated from men. Her husband was, after all, six foot-two. There was a time, only two decades ago, when many black women looked at the women's movement as a middle-class white concern, a passing political fashion, or argued that black women and white women wanted very different things. No one, they pointed out, expected...

(The entire section is 4784 words.)

Donnella Canty (review date April 1996)

SOURCE: "McMillan Arrives," in English Journal, Vol. 85, No. 4, April, 1996, pp. 86-7.

[In the following review, Canty offers high praise for Waiting to Exhale.]

Move over Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, make room for Terry McMillan. McMillan will need a lot of room on the bench of elite, female African American writers if her latest novel, Waiting to Exhale, is any indication of her true talent. In addition to Waiting to Exhale, McMillan has two other novels to her credit; Mama (1987) and Disappearing Acts (1980) were McMillan's first two fictional endeavors. She also edited Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 April 1996)

SOURCE: A review of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 14, April 1, 1996, p. 52.

[In the following review, the critic offers a tempered assessment of How Stella Got Her Groove Back.]

Her readers may be surprised that, after the gritty, tell-it-as-it-is Mama and Waiting to Exhale, McMillan has now written a fairy tale. Her "forty-fucking-two-year-old" heroine, divorcee Stella Payne, possesses a luxurious house and pool in northern California, a lucrative job as a security analyst, a BMW and a truck, a personal trainer and an adorable 11-year-old son—but no steady guy. On a whim, Stella decides to vacation in...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Malcolm Jones Jr. (essay date 29 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Successful Sisters: Faux Terry Is Better than No Terry," in Newsweek, Vol. 127, No. 18, April 29, 1996, p. 79.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses the popularity and influence of McMillan's fiction on the publishing industry and other African-American writers.]

Like James Michener and his generational epics and Tom Clancy and his techno-thrillers, Terry McMillan created a new literary genre with her upbeat novels about contemporary black women. Then she went those other writers one better: she created an entirely new audience to go with her genre. Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, a Philadelphia literary promoter, claims that for African-American women desperate...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

John Leland (essay date 29 April 1996)

SOURCE: "How Terry Got Her Groove," in Newsweek, Vol. 127, No. 18, April 29, 1996, pp. 76-9.

[In the following essay, Leland discusses McMillan's literary success, critical reception, and wide popularity.]

It is midmorning. In Terry Mcmillan's home, and the lovebirds are squawking. This is McMillan's modest-size house—the builders are putting the finishing touches on a grand Spanish-style manor around the corner—and the caged birds are able to rock it: four or five of them, brilliant green and red and yellow, splaying shocks of sound and color amid the fierce teal and chartreuse finishings. The lovebird, you might imagine, has a gentle, soothing coo. But you'd be...

(The entire section is 2114 words.)

James Wolcott (review date 29 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Terry McMillan," in The New Yorker, Vol. 72, No. 10, April 29, 1996, p. 102.

[In the following review, Wolcott comments briefly on How Stella Got Her Groove Back and McMillan's literary success.]

Waiting to Exhale was for Terry McMillan what Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was for Anne Tyler—a popular breakthrough after years of paying dues. McMillan's previous novels, Mama and Disappearing Acts, had found a niche with readers, but had done nothing to separate her from the pack of other praiseworthies. Then came Waiting to Exhale, a huge best-seller, its liftoff supplied by the jubilant, snappy talk of its female...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

Liesl Schillinger (review date 5 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Beneath a Jamaican Moon," in Washington Post Book World, May 5, 1996, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Schillinger commends McMillan's strong female protagonist and portrayal of desublimated female desire in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Schillinger concludes, "women are ready to read about themselves not only as schemers or sufferers, but as the adventurous heroes of their own lives."]

Is a happy woman in charge of her own fate de facto an unsympathetic character—someone people don't want to read about and cannot empathize with? If so, the defenders of serious literature will no doubt join in unison to eject Terry McMillan's rip-roaring new...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

John Skow (review date 6 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Some Groove," in Time, Vol. 147, No. 19, May 6, 1996, pp. 77-8.

[In the following review, Skow discusses McMillan's literary success and the wide popularity of her fiction.]

News flash: Terry McMillan's big-bucks new novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a silly wish-fulfillment fantasy that barely qualifies as beach literature. Heroine Stella Payne is a beautiful, single, "forty-bleeping-two-year-old" black investment analyst who, though sexy and rich, hasn't had a date in months. Tired of waiting for a black prince to materialize in a paid-for Lexus, she flies to Jamaica on vacation, meets Winston Shakespeare, a tall, golden-brown, bashful...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)

Richard Bernstein (review date 15 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Black, Affluent and Looking for More," in The New York Times, May 15, 1996, p. C17.

[In the following review, Bernstein offers a generally positive assessment of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, but states that "the issues for Stella are luxuriously banal."]

Terry McMillan's new novel is like one of those television sitcoms in which a somewhat unconventional family faces the somewhat unconventional plight of one of its members. In this episode, the family member is Stella Payne, an affluent, divorced 42-year-old investment analyst who, trying to put a little excitement back into her life, goes on vacation to Jamaica. There she meets a handsome, gentle,...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)

Terry McMillan with Evette Porter (interview date 21 May 1996)

SOURCE: "My Novel, Myself," in Village Voice, May 21, 1996, pp. 41-2.

[In the following interview, McMillan discusses her critical reception and autobiographical aspects of her fiction, particularly in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.]

The thing to remember about Terry McMillan is that she's very much a diva, and not just by reputation. With her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, she actually looks the part, even if she seems somewhat younger than her 44 years and is smaller than I'd expected. Her voice is deep, mature, and sounds slightly edgy as she explains she's just finished doing 19 interviews. She became a phenomenon after the success of Waiting To...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)

Sarah Ferguson (review date 2 June 1996)

SOURCE: A review of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1996, p. 21.

[In the following review, Ferguson summarizes the "uncomplicated" message of How Stella Got Her Groove Back.]

Divorced at 42, with an 11-year-old son and a lucrative job in investment banking, Stella Payne splits her time between a "funky little California castle" outside San Francisco and a cabin at Lake Tahoe. She's got four computers in her office, a personal trainer, a pool and two steam rooms—but make no mistake, it's lonely at the top. "Once you get past the 200,000-a-year mark you are constantly being appraised and as a result always trying to prove...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

Janet Mason Ellerby (essay date Summer 1997)

SOURCE: "Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family," in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 105-17.

[In the following essay, Ellerby examines McMillan's depiction of the African-American family in Mama, Disappearing Acts, and Waiting to Exhale. In contrast to other mainstream white, middle-class models, Ellerby asserts that "McMillan's polemical novels reject the dominant patriarchal family values reinforced by the Waltons and the Cosbys and propounded by the Christian right."]

In Terry McMillan's first novel, Mama, Mildred's husband is holding fiercely to his notion of being the "man of the house" within the nuclear...

(The entire section is 5015 words.)

Further Reading


Johnston, Tracy. Review of Waiting to Exhale, by Terry McMillan. Whole Earth Review, No. 78 (Spring 1993): 84.

A favorable review of Waiting to Exhale.

Kaganoff, Penny. Review of Breaking Ice, by Terry McMillan. Publishers Weekly (21 September 1990): 68-9.

A favorable review of Breaking Ice.

Nichols, Charles H. "Exploring the Frozen Sea Within Us." American Visions 6, No. 1 (February 1991): 34.

A favorable review of Breaking Ice.


(The entire section is 192 words.)