Waiting to Exhale

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Terry McMillan’s engaging third novel, Waiting to Exhale (she also edited the well-received Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction, 1990) follows four single, black women through the course of 1990 as they deal with children, divorce, jobs, parents, and each other, all the while hoping to find the men of their dreams. Like the 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, sometimes tough, generally more insightful about other people’s problems than their own, and occasionally exasperating.

To an extent, what this novel is confronting is demographics. As African American women in their late thirties, living in Arizona, and interested in black men (none of them seriously considers a relationship with a white man), their romantic prospects are limited. Most of the prospects they come across seem to be married, self-centered, losers, gay, or some combination of the above. To an extent, this novel also is updating a question that Jane Austen and Edith Wharton tackled in some of their novels, of how single women who have outgrown being kids go about conducting a romantic life without sacrificing their integrity, their work, and their lives.

Like Disappearing Acts, the novel is written in alternating chapters from each of the four main characters’ point of view. To help the reader keep straight the points 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. Unlike Disappearing Acts, in which the main focus for the primary characters is each other, these four women spend a great deal of time trying not to worry about the men, or the lack of men, in their lives, and focus their attentions elsewhere. 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 to begin in a new city and a mother who is partly dependent on the money Savannah sends; and Bernadine has two children and a slippery former husband who is trying to keep her share of their money legally hidden from her. Of the four, only Robin absolutely needs a man in her life to maintain her self-image, but all four are ready to be distracted if the right man—or a reasonable facsimile—should come along.

Although there is no single main character, Savannah Jackson is to some extent the model that the other three characters seem to be variations on. College educated and reflective, she is interested in finding a man for a serious relationship, but not just any man. She is experienced enough to know what interests her in a man as well as what does not, and that few black men who have reached her age group and remained single have much of what she is interested in to offer. Her meeting with Lionel near the beginning of the novel serves as a case in point. Lionel, who got her phone number from a mutual friend, has invited her to meet him at a New Year’s Eve party. Savannah, who has already decided to move to Phoenix, has promised herself that she will not endure another year’s slate of holidays alone, and so goes to the party to meet Lionel, although she is doubtful anything good can come of it. Lionel turns out to be tall and good looking, and during a slow dance together, Savannah finds herself fantasizing that Lionel is the man she has waited for all of her life. As soon as they sit down, though, he gets back up to dance with another woman in the same romantic way, and Savannah leaves. It is not over, though. Lionel offers to help her move to Phoenix, and their sexual encounter the night they stay in a motel is, as Savannah tells it, a classic I-should-have-listened-to-my better-judgment comedy. When they get to Phoenix, he tries to move in with her for a few days; she gives him money to stay in a motel and leave her alone.

Bernadine Harris, Savannah’s old roommate from college, is probably the second most important character. Although she is not as much the emotional center of the book as Savannah is, she is in some ways more engaging, if only because her life appears more complicated. After eleven years of marriage, her husband John announces that he wants a divorce so that he can marry his young, white secretary. As Bernadine accepts what has happened, she becomes increasingly enraged, not because she is losing a husband whom she acknowledges she has not loved for a while, but because she realizes he has duped her into putting her own life on hold to live in his orbit. Meanwhile, he has been making plans to leave, carefully trying to hide his financial assets from the legal reach of a divorce lawyer. For a small dose of revenge, she burns his clothes and BMW, sells his belongings (including an antique car) for a dollar an item, and, when she discovers he has emptied their joint bank account, writes herself a check for sixteen thousand dollars against an American Express account in his name. Meanwhile, she tries to find sensitive ways to discuss her husband’s actions with their son and daughter, explaining that their daddy is leaving her, not them. Feeling herself sinking, she looks for comfort first in prescription pills and later in the company of a married man, but both times is unprepared for the side effects that follow.

Robin is the flightiest member of the group. Suffering through the end of an affair with a handsome black man named Russell, she tries her luck with a pudgy, wealthy man named Michael to whom she has no sexual attraction, but who she hopes is attracted enough to her to make up the difference. He tries, but her description of lovemaking that does absolutely nothing for her provides some of the novel’s best comedy. Less comic is her blindness toward Russell. Even after she finds out that he married another women, her attraction for him easily overpowers her better sense. In general, for Robin, good sense seems to be something to lock in a closet while dealing with men.

Rounding out the group is Gloria Matthews, the only woman of the four who is ready to accept being middle-aged. In fact, she is too ready to accept it, in the view of her friends and son. Overweight and addicted to television, Gloria is convinced she is unattractive to men, and after her son’s father, the one man she has had any sexual contact with in recent years, reveals his homosexuality to her, she is content to sit on the sidelines of the male/female chase. It is a tribute to the novel that the reader can detect a certain dignity in Gloria’s noninvolvement, even while acknowledging that she has constructed her position and attitude toward men from defenses...

(The entire section is 2764 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Terry McMillan has created four protagonists whose personalities represent aspects of contemporary middle-class African American women. The narrative structure of Waiting to Exhale is rather unusual, with alternating chapters told from different main characters’ perspectives. Savannah and Robin tell their own stories, while Gloria’s and Bernadine’s narratives are related in the third person. Taken together, McMillan’s four protagonists mirror the concerns, the joys, and the struggles of contemporary African American women. The problems these fictional women encounter and overcome are problems to which many women can directly relate. The lives of these women—indeed, the women themselves—are the major focus of the novel.

Waiting to Exhale follows the lives and loves of four middle-aged African American women who struggle to change the tenor and direction of their lives. The changes do not seem great, in some cases, but they represent the small, internal shifts that give individuals new perspectives and renewed power in their lives. These women are drawn together by bonds of friendship and sharing, and together or singly they deal with issues such as job changes, divorce, aging and ailing parents, and the desire to establish a relationship with a good man. The desire for and the lack of a fulfilling relationship with someone of the opposite sex dominates much of the discourse of the narrative; however, the search for a man is...

(The entire section is 587 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like McMillan’s earlier novels, Waiting to Exhale offers a feminist perspective not unlike those of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. The changing roles of women, their feelings, and their voices are central to this work. Although many of the men in this book are portrayed as immature or ineffectual, McMillan, like Walker and Hurston, offers some amount of hope for male-female communication and cooperation. Unlike the women in Hurston’s and Walker’s novels, McMillan’s independent, career-oriented women form their own community and set the parameters for discourse within that community. McMillan’s novel is not a groundbreaking work, but as a reiteration of the search for self and voice found in such works as Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, it definitely makes an important contribution to the growing body of African American women’s literature.

Although all of her novels contribute to the African American women’s literary canon, McMillan seems consciously to model certain aspects of her work upon Hurston’s. Like Hurston’s, McMillan’s characters are not representative of large classes of African American women. Instead, McMillan focuses on the individual difficulties and small victories of women in their day-to-day lives.

Although McMillan focuses on individual lives and small victories, she does not hesitate to use her characters to voice political concerns. She does not, however, focus totally on racial concerns. In her introduction to Breaking Ice, McMillan states that many contemporary African American writers are a “new breed” of artists who are free to “comment on ourselves in our work.” McMillan considers herself representative of these new artists, writers who come from many different backgrounds, who concentrate not on the entire African American people, but on the lives of the individuals that they create.

Despite the fact that McMillan writes about individual lives, Waiting to Exhale is part of the literature of African American women. According to Mary Helen Washington, the single distinguishing feature of literature by African American women is that it centers on women, on the “thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds” of these women. Waiting to Exhale belongs to this category. It centers not only on the words, thoughts, and actions of Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria but also on the shared intimacies that allow McMillan to represent her women more fully.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Waiting to Exhale is structured as a series of alternating chapters, almost all written from the point of view of one of the four main...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

McMillan's fiction should provoke stimulating discussions because it engages themes of relationships and the problems that arise from them,...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Social Concerns
In Waiting to Exhale, McMillan tries to
show the need for a radical improvement
in gender relations,...

(The entire section is 5976 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Critical commentary relates McMillan's work to a trend toward African American feminist literature that arose after the early 1970s. African...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Disappearing Acts, McMillan treats the theme of gender relations through the characters of Zora Banks, a schoolteacher and aspiring singer...

(The entire section is 215 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An abridged, two-cassette edition of Waiting to Exhale was published in 1992 by Penguin-High Bridge Audio. The reader is Terry McMillan. An...

(The entire section is 173 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. New York: Meridian Books, 1990. Several essays in this important collection address ways of responding to black women’s literature.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman’s Literary Tradition.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian Books, 1990. Emphasizes how black female subjectivity helps to structure many texts in the black women’s literary tradition.

Johnston, Tracy. Review of Waiting to Exhale, by...

(The entire section is 268 words.)