BOOK REVIEW / A deluge of hate male: 'Waiting to Exhale' - Terry McMillan: Doubleday, 14.99

Maggie Traugott
Saturday 10 October 1992 23:02

IT'S ALL very well holding in your tummy and your breath while waiting for love to turn up - the state described in the title - but it is also advisable to sustain life. Three of the four characters who alternately narrate this rattling great agony column of a novel are commendably trim and airtight, but nearly paralysed with anxiety about finding and ensnaring Mr Right - and convincing him of their personal freshness and muscle tone. Alas, so many of the candidates for Rightness are imposters, the women spend the rest of their time itemising rueful male shortcomings, and there is just so much moaning about men a reader can take.

Bounders with bad breath, drug habits, hairy ears, wives, children and money problems they forgot to mention - at least you know how you're supposed to react to this lot. Among the blatantly obvious no-nos is Russell, a two-timing, seriously sponging drifter with SUAVE printed on his licence plate. Robin, the most gullible of the women, who lives by astrology, borrows dollars 3,000 from her parents to loan to this sleazeball. Can she get the money back? Eager to assist her is a colleague called Michael, but he has flabby pectorals and poor bedroom skills. What is a girl supposed to do?

Another arch-baddy is Bernadine's extremely rich husband John, who runs off with his white secretary and tries to hide his many assets during the divorce, so as to minimise alimony and child maintenance. When, after a legal battle lasting the length of the book, Bernadine ends up with nearly a million dollars in settlement, the reader is delighted to share in the celebrations.

Most irritating and monotonous (no doubt for the datees as well) are the ambiguous, debatable dates. After lots of outfit changing and hygiene breakthroughs in the shoes, yet another date, described as 'past gorgeous' and pretty indistinguishable from the last for all the character that is developed, arrives with all the gooey dialogue the datee requires. She falls for it, lands in bed and wails to her sisters when he doesn't call back. The women blame their misery on the men; they blame it on records (why do Al Green and Roberta Flack put them in moods they cannot sustain?).

While the three sylphs beat their trim-line breasts about the latest no- good, they cheer themselves up by showering elaborate pity on a sister called Gloria because she is fat. Gloria has single-handedly turned out a well-

behaved 17-year-old son, runs her own successful hairdresser's and has recently caught the eye (or at least piqued the taste buds with her sweet-potato pie) of a widower with a throaty laugh and, most important, plumbing and electrical expertise. He can fix anything. Now this is smart.

Gloria cannot be allowed to get away with it, however: being a fat heroine is not the American way. Therefore, she must suffer a massive (why is it always 'massive'?) heart attack, and women's-magazine principles are restored.

Terry McMillan is a star in the United States. People who have never read a book are buying hers. This is good news. But it does feel a bit like opening somebody else's hate mail. If an African-American male had had the temerity to write like this about women, he wouldn't be inhaling or exhaling.

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