Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Waiting to Exhale tells the story of four college-educated, middle-class black women who rely on one another to overcome a number of personal and professional crises. As a record of a year in these women’s lives, the novel goes back and forth in time to chart the paths that have led each woman to Phoenix and to become the sort of woman each is. In addition to telling the story of the women, the novel explores the social and cultural contexts of African American life in the 1990’s. McMillan focuses on a number of political and social issues that are in the background of these women’s lives.
Through the story of Savannah Jackson, McMillan provides some sense of the struggles many black women must endure to have successful careers. Savannah often telephones her mother and sister, who live in Pittsburgh. Her mother lives on Social Security benefits and food stamps. Savannah’s sister endures a troubled marriage and has often been on the run, taking her children to cheap motels but always returning to her husband, on whom she is dependent but whom she perhaps does not love. Savannah, knowing the difficulties her family faces, often does not tell them of her own problems, and she of all her siblings is the only one to send her mother money every month to supplement the meager Social Security benefits.
Robin Stokes’s relationship with her family creates an additional burden for her. Her father suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and...
(The entire section is 617 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
In Waiting to Exhale, the four central female characters are members of an organization called Black Women on the Move (BWOM). The problem is that these bright, attractive, and loving women have themselves been on the move too long. They see themselves coming near to middle age fearing that they will not be able to find or sustain a sexual relationship with a black man whom they consider to be eligible. Savannah, with her mind set on a career and upward mobility, has been in three live-in relationships over a period of nine years, and she is holding her breath (waiting to exhale) until the time when she can locate someone whose interests are reasonably close to hers who is faithful, attractive, knowledgeable, and a good lover, attributes evidently extremely scarce among men.
As the novel opens, Savannah is planning a move from Denver, where she holds a well-paying but dead-end job, to Phoenix, where she has accepted a less well-paying job but one that fulfills her creative needs and one that she thinks promises more upward mobility. While in Phoenix, Savannah stays with her college roommate, Bernadine, whose “successful” marriage has just collapsed, her husband having left her for a younger white woman. Bernadine is left to cope with two children, a large house, and considerable stress over money at a time when she should be receiving benefits from her husband’s successful career. Not only does he leave her, but he also carefully hides all...
(The entire section is 611 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan’s third novel, was an instant popular success when it was first published in 1992. The book found wide acceptance, both critical and public, largely because of the honesty of its character portrayals and the timeliness of its themes. All four main characters in Waiting To Exhale are seeking the acceptance of culture and family but are also determined to escape their limiting influences. The conflicts that arise in the lives of the characters reflect the concerns of black feminist writers in general, and critics generally regard McMillan as having a finger on the pulse of 1990’s educated black women. The novel’s popularity is a reflection of the growing number of middle-class young African Americans who wish to participate in black cultural life and preserve its heritage.
The title of Waiting To Exhale is a metaphor for the tension in each of the novel’s four protagonists’s lives. All are waiting breathlessly to find the right man, and are figuratively holding their breath until he comes along. Each protagonist’s story delineates a different type of coping strategy for the alienation and anxiety each suffers. In the face of criticism from their families, their culture, and themselves, the four women develop a friendship that enables them to stand fast against the many temptations to “settle” for an unhealthy relationship. The novel’s setting, Phoenix, implies the possibility of...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Savannah Jackson’s sister Sheila tells Savannah about a business owner named Lionel, and Lionel invites Savannah to attend a New Year’s Eve party. As Savannah gets ready to ring in 1990, she reflects on her annoyance with Sheila and their mother, who have suggested that Savannah is miserable because she does not have a husband and does not live closer to her family. She realizes she does not need a man to validate her but admits that, as she broke up with Kenneth Dawkins four years ago, she wants to be in love again.
Even though she has already moved four times in fifteen years, Savannah is about to move again because she finds Denver, particularly the men, boring. The only person she knows in Phoenix is her college roommate, Bernadine Harris, but this does not prevent her from interviewing for a job there after visiting and learning about an opening in the publicity department at a local television station. Savannah is excited about securing the job since it will help her get closer to her dream of producing television programs. However, her new job will pay twelve thousand dollars per year less than her old job.
The prospect of a pay cut worries Savannah because it could interfere with her ability to take care of her mother. Her mother receives Social Security benefits and food stamps, but her monthly income is so low that she has difficulty taking care of her financial obligations in Pittsburgh, where she lives in a Section 8 apartment....
(The entire section is 1370 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In several ways, Waiting to Exhale is quite different from McMillan’s two earlier novels. Instead of two protagonists, there are four. Moreover, each of the twenty-eight chapters in Waiting to Exhale has its own provocative title, for example, “Venus in Virgo” and “Interstate Lust.” Each also has the kind of beginning, middle, and end that one ordinarily finds in a short story. The novel proceeds from episode to episode, unified by the interaction among McMillan’s four heroines, all of whom are successful women in their thirties living in Phoenix, Arizona, who are having trouble finding the right man.
Giving up on finding a man in Denver, Savannah Jackson quits her public-relations job and, with her cat and her art collection, moves to Phoenix, where she hopes to have better luck. From the beginning, however, the cards seem to be stacked against her. The good-looking man who agrees to drive her to Phoenix turns out to be a phony and a drug addict; the doctor out of her past who reappears in her life keeps stalling about the divorce he is supposedly considering; and the romantic San Franciscan she meets at a convention never returns her calls.
Meanwhile, Savannah’s best friend, Bernadine Harris, has lost her husband of eleven years to a younger white woman. Although their marriage had long been dead, Bernadine had not expected to see the end of her comfortable lifestyle. She finds, however, that for months her...
(The entire section is 566 words.)