Waiting to Exhale

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Over the course of a year, Savannah Jackson, Robin Stokes, Bernadine Harris, and Gloria Matthews, the main characters in Terry McMillan’s lively novel WAITING TO EXHALE, deal with children, divorce, jobs, parents, and each other, while waiting for the man of their dreams, or a close facsimile. Most of the prospects they meet, however, turn out to be married, self-centered, and/or losers. Like other black women in McMillan’s two previous novels, MAMA (1987) and DISAPPEARING ACTS (1989), the women in WAITING TO EXHALE are urban, smart, blunt-speaking, and occasionally exasperating.

The novel is written in alternating chapters from each of the four main characters’ point of view. The chapters focusing on Robin and Savannah are written in the first person, while the sections focusing on Gloria and Bernadine are told in the third person. Gloria owns a hair salon and has a son, Tarik, who is discovering sex; Robin has a father with Alzheimer’s; Savannah has a new job in a new city; and Bernadine has two children and a slippery ex-husband.

All four women have romantic encounters with men, some hilariously described, but it is the women themselves, more than their relationships with men, that are the novel’s focus. They talk over lunch, at meetings, and on the telephone, offering support, catching up on news, joking about sex, and trading minor insults. The dialogue could be pruned, but it is witty and lively and, in McMillan’s hands, a vehicle for character development.

By the end, each of the four protagonists seems to have lived several years in one, but this is easily accepted by a reader in the name of artistic compression. And when, at the end, Bernadine makes a mental list of people and organizations she would like to help in the future, it punctuates a central message of the novel. At the heart of this group portrait is a statement about the value and beauty of black women, and, more generally, friends sharing lives and laughs together.


Awkward, Michael. “Chronicling Everyday Travails and Triumphs.” Callaloo 11, no. 3 (Summer, 1988): 649-650. In his review of McMillan’s first novel, Mama, Awkward discusses the novelist’s goals and style of writing. Although he compares her to Zora Neale Hurston, he also points to significant differences between the two writers.

Ellerby, Janet M. “Deposing the Man of the House: Terry McMillan Rewrites the Family.” MELUS 22 (Summer, 1997): 105-117. Ellerby discusses McMillan’s portrayal of African American families living outside white middle-class norms. Ellerby acknowledges that some African American women writers have characterized McMillan’s work as pulp fiction, but Ellerby argues that McMillan’s novels significantly contribute to...

(The entire section is 1150 words.)