Waiting to Exhale offers a realist depiction of African American women’s romantic, platonic, and familial relationships. Written in both the first person and the third person, each of the twenty-eight chapters alternates between the perspectives of the four main characters. In the beginning of the novel, each of the women believes she will exhale once she has found the man who complements her, but by the novel’s end the women realize they will exhale when they love themselves, their families, and their community.
Terry McMillan uses each character’s life as an opportunity to highlight health and social issues prevalent in African American communities. For example, Robin’s mother has had a double mastectomy, and Gloria suffers from hypertension. Tarik’s father confides in Gloria about his sexuality, and one of her employees contracts AIDS, providing a forum for discussions about homophobia, bisexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases. Black Women on the Move, an organization committed to serving the community, is reminiscent of historic social clubs made up of African American women. The group raises money for scholarships and various service projects that will address social issues.
Waiting to Exhale was the first of McMillan’s novels to achieve “cross-over” success beyond an African American readership. Professional women were intrigued by McMillan’s depiction of female characters in their thirties who seem to be succeeding in every area of their lives except in relationships with men. McMillan has been criticized for her depiction of African American men, as most of the male characters are unemployed, irresponsible, and dishonest. The novel, however, includes honest and admirable men such as James, Michael, and Marvin.
Shortly after the novel’s release, it was placed on the New York Times best-seller list, alongside the works of notable writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Audrey Edwards noted that three weeks after its release the novel went into a tenth printing, and three weeks after that, paperback rights were auctioned for $2.64 million.
Waiting to Exhale is noteworthy because when it was published few books depicted self-empowered African American women who were not primarily victims of racism, classism, and sexism. There were also few contemporary books that posed questions about African American male and female relationships, the African American middle class, and the strength of African American female friendship. McMillan has been credited with paving the way for similar novels to be published.