Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan

Start Your Free Trial

Download Waiting to Exhale Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 her mother remains firm in her resolve to care for him in her Tucson home. Robin’s experiences with her sick father show how the disease takes him away from her; eventually, she and her mother have no choice but to admit him to a nursing home, and McMillan shows how painful that choice is. Other choices by Robin also illuminate the novel’s context. Before they first have sex, for example, Robin asks Michael if he has a condom, and she lets him know that she does. Practicing safe sex is important to these women, particularly since they unfold a history of many sexual partners.

The need for safe sex hits Gloria Matthews’s home when one of the stylists at her hair salon develops acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). When Gloria’s son acknowledges to her that he is having sex, sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy become family issues.

Other social concerns the novel addresses in its background include scholarships for black students, the problems of single mothers, and opportunities for professional and personal networking among African American women. This last topic is a major concern of the main characters; all are members of an organization called Black Women on the Move, in which Gloria serves as a member of the board of directors. All the women agree to vote to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday an official Arizona state holiday.

While McMillan takes note of the contexts that surround and invade these characters’ lives, the four women remain the focus and raison d’être of the novel. Each struggles with a number of difficulties, and all are there to support one another. Yet, although Bernadine, Savannah, Robin, and Gloria are mutually supportive, the novel’s record of their friendship is far from a fairy tale. They argue and disagree, and they laugh at and judge one another. To a large extent, what any one woman is able to offer to the others depends on how she is dealing with her own problems. At the novel’s end, some crises have been met and conquered, and others are yet to come. The women, however, know that their friendship will see them through.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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,...

(The entire section is 1,609 words.)