Waiting to Exhale is McMillan’s third published novel. Mama, her first, was published in 1987, and Disappearing Acts, her second, was published in 1989. Unlike other black women writers whose works are often lyrical and densely symbolic, McMillan works mainly on the level of social realism, relying on a linear plot line and irony to shape the novels and provide both themes and structure. The novels are set in urban locations, and the female protagonists are lusty, frank, and often profane. They are sometimes married and sometimes have children; the men in their lives are usually violent, alcoholic, or so frustrated by social conditions that they cannot function normally as the women desire. Consequently, the women are left with, for example, the five children that Mildred Peacock has in Mama and the need somehow to support them by any means possible. Mildred finds work wherever she can and sex when it offers itself. In Disappearing Acts, McMillan deals with another strong black woman, Zora Banks. Banks is a musician who is making her living as a teacher in a junior high school. She has moved from Ohio to New York in an attempt to further her ambitions to be a songwriter and recording artist. Problems arise when she meets Franklin, a high-school dropout and intermittent construction worker. Their love for each other is continually threatened by differences in education, ambition, and job security. Franklin is given to blaming the whole white world for his plight, and, as might be expected, is finally moved to extreme violence against Zora Banks.
Issues raised in Mama and Disappearing Acts reappear in Waiting to Exhale. These continuing concerns include unstable marital relationships, problems of rearing children in hostile environments, inequities in class and education between black men and women, and questions of where, when, and how satisfactory sexual relationships can take place in a time of changing morés and cultural values.