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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

With A Day Late and a Dollar Short, Terry McMillan returned to a familiar format. Like Mama , the new novel is the story of a large African American family dominated by a matriarch. In fact, Viola Price’s extended family has so many members that, without the sketch of...

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With A Day Late and a Dollar Short, Terry McMillan returned to a familiar format. Like Mama, the new novel is the story of a large African American family dominated by a matriarch. In fact, Viola Price’s extended family has so many members that, without the sketch of the family tree inside the cover of the hardback version of the book, it would be difficult for readers to follow the action. The novel is also confusing because there are six first-person narrators: Viola Price, her four children, and their father, Viola’s former husband, Cecil. However, this approach has the advantage of making the characters more vivid and also more sympathetic. Despite their flaws, they all mean well. Moreover, for all their squabbling, they do have feelings for one another. Unfortunately, none of the children will face the truth about themselves and their lives, and Viola knows that, until they do, they will never fulfill the potential that she sees in all of them.

The most successful of Viola’s children is her oldest daughter, Paris. It is Paris who frees her mother from financial worries, putting her into a new condominium and buying her the car that she desperately needs. However, Viola knows that Paris is desperately lonely. Moreover, she has taken to downing pills whenever she needs an additional spurt of energy. Viola’s middle daughter, Charlotte, is also well off, but ever since she was a child, she has run on anger. She is too stingy to help her mother or anyone else in the family—but then, she has always yearned for proof that Viola loves her as much as she does Paris. Janelle, the youngest child, is too busy searching for herself to notice that her twelve-year-old daughter is being molested by her stepfather. Viola’s only son, Lewis, is intelligent but hot-tempered and addicted to alcohol. As for Cecil, though Viola does not want him back, she does not like to see him victimized by his young girlfriend, who expects him to provide for her children and even for an unborn child that is almost certainly not his.

If A Day Late and a Dollar Short is about individual failures and family quarrels, it is also about courage. Whatever their shortcomings, every one of Viola’s children and grandchildren has inherited some of her strength. They may experience rape, incest, addiction, illness, unwanted pregnancy, imprisonment, or heart-wrenching betrayal, but they pick themselves up and move on. What frustrates Viola is that, though they may survive, they all continue to evade the truth.

Then the unthinkable happens: Viola has one more attack of asthma, and this time she does not recover. Although inevitably Viola’s death brings the family members together in one place, they still have not become the strong unit that she had always wanted them to be. Then Cecil reads the letter she had left for him, and the four children take turns reading each other’s letters aloud. After the tears and laughter that follow, they begin making plans for their next reunion. From beyond the grave, Viola has taught them what they would not recognize as long as she was alive, that nothing is more important than family.

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