Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Readers who mistake Stella’s narration for the novel’s authorial voice might think How Stella Got Her Groove Back is simply derivative of Harlequin romances, aiming to modify the romance formula to fit the fantasies of African American women in their thirties and forties. In fact, however, the novel employs the escapist boy-meets-girl romance formula only initially, ultimately working against and even mocking that formula. The romance novel cliché of an exotic Caribbean setting with stunning beaches, gorgeous sunsets, and handsome local males is offset by the grim reality of Jamaican life for the impoverished natives, the absence of common amenities anywhere except the resort areas, the heroine’s determination not to marry and definitely not to have more children, her need to fulfill existing familial and personal responsibilities, and the fact that Stella’s final career decision receives more time and space at the end of the novel than does her romantic decision. The contrast between the United States and Jamaica is one of conspicuous consumption versus simplicity and poverty, of overriding competition and drive versus a more balanced attitude toward life and relationships, and of choices based on conformity and fear versus choices based on the heart. The novel’s final argument is that satisfying work makes satisfying relationships possible.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Stella is on a quest for self-realization. She dearly loves her son, but she is not especially lonely because he left to visit his father. Quincy's absence gives Stella the chance to take time off from motherhood and reflect on how to "shoot some vitality into my heart, my mind, this house of soul I live in." Her divorce has taken the "bite" out of her. She feels locked into a job that is dull and boring, and so high paying that she is constantly being appraised and worn out from trying to prove herself. Stella enjoys "making things that serve a purpose," but art is "iffy" when one has a mortgage.

The decision to leave for Jamaica is the first freeing step for Stella, since it overthrows the proprieties for women. "You mean to tell me you're gonna go all the way to a foreign country by yourself?" her sister Angela asks. "What if somebody realizes you're alone and tries to take advantage of you?" Stella is quizzed in the van going to Negril. "You mean you're here all by your lonesome?" a woman marvels." Aren't you brave," another says. "I'd never dream of traveling anywhere like this alone." Even Winston, when Stella meets him, makes assumptions. "Where's your husband?" he inquires. "Did you come with your boyfriend?" Her initial break with convention brings Stella to the prospect of a liberating love, but getting past the hurdle that Winston has not yet turned twenty-one is hard to do. "He's a child," Stella tells herself at once, even if "a tall handsome sexy maple-syrup-colored" child. She wishes they had "this make and model" in her forties age group. She thinks that being drawn to a man so young is inappropriate.

Stella wrestles with that problem for the rest of the novel. While her struggle involves themes related to relationships— the search for love, the fear of commitment— and certainly midlife crisis and stagnation on the...

(The entire section is 759 words.)