To say that the 1992 debut of Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan’s first best-seller, was a watershed moment in contemporary American fiction would be an understatement. For legions of black women, seeing characters like themselves placed front and center was a revolution unto itself. McMillan was 40 years old at the time, and like her two previous novels (Mama and Disappearing Acts) as well as the many that would follow, Waiting to Exhale was a refreshing departure from the traditional black female narrative. McMillan’s heroines were often high-performing achievers, struggling with issues not only of race and class but also of romance, finance, family and emotional stability. Multitudes of black women saw themselves reflected in these characters, and their experiences validated through them.
With the June 7 debut of McMillan’s eighth novel, I Almost Forgot About You, no doubt we’ll be introduced to an entirely new crop of memorable characters and relatable scenarios. So with that in mind, let’s reflect on 10 more unforgettable lessons about love—and life—from one of our favorite girlfriend-auntie-gurus of modern fiction:
- The “middle” isn’t the end: Terry McMillan was in her mid-30s when she published her first novel, Mama, and has consistently given voice to the experiences of women over 35 since. Her leading ladies aren’t ingenues but, rather, grown women approaching or already in middle age, examining their lives and often embarking on new adventures. At a time of life when many are encouraged to slow down and settle, Terry’s characters are just picking up steam. Believe it or not, you can, too.
- The “end” isn’t the end, either: Past relationships frequently play a supporting role in McMillan’s narratives, such as in Getting to Happy (the sequel to Waiting to Exhale), where Robin finds her happy ending with Michael, a once-dismissed ex, and Bernadine finally gets the support she deserves through an unexpected friendship with former husband John (along with an apology she finds she no longer needs). Ex-husbands and boyfriends, lost loves and the like all contribute to the richness of her stories and the multidimensionality of her characters. Often, her female protagonists must heal in order to move on. But, occasionally, that healing comes in the form of rekindling an old flame or recalibrating a failed romance.
- Love isn’t always “evenly yoked”: Whether through the romance of the unreliably employed working-class hero Franklin Swift and talented teacher Zora in Disappearing Acts, or the irresistible Winston Shakespeare, the Jamaican tenderoni who helps a much older Stella get her groove back, McMillan consistently reminds us that you can’t always choose with whom you fall in love.
- My mother, my self: Terry McMillan rarely lets us forget where her characters come from, even if they’ve used miles and money to distance themselves from their pasts—and parents. She also forces us to remember that our parents are people, too. From the vivacious but struggling matriarch Mildred Peacock in Mama, to a dying Viola Price desperate to save her dysfunctional family in A Day Late and a Dollar Short, we are made to understand, time and again, that our mothers are not only human but a fundamental part of who we are.
- I’m not your “Superwoman”: In a world that often still insists on casting black women as “the mules of the world” (shoutout to Zora Neale Hurston), McMillan insists that we not idealize or glamorize our tolerance for pain. Her female characters are undoubtedly strong and resilient, yet often quietly broken by the challenges life lobs at them. And ultimately, no one gets free without first reckoning with her demons.
- Be prepared to pivot: Divorces happen. Death happens. Betrayals of the deepest kind happen. Every McMillan heroine (and occasional hero) encounters sharp turns and bumps in the road; how they respond is what makes her books such entertaining reads. The plots of The Interruption of Everything, Who Asked You? and A Day Late and a Dollar Short all revolve around middle-age matriarchs muddling through lives that have turned out disappointingly different from what they planned—until the unexpected happens, and they’re forced to change course. Bottom line? Life happens. It’s how you react that’s important.
- Let it burn: Perhaps the most memorable Terry McMillan moment of all time is the meltdown of betrayed wife Bernadine in Waiting to Exhale, culminating in the fiery destruction of her wayward husband’s belongings and car. The scene, flawlessly executed by Angela Bassett in the 1995 film, is the epitome of the phrase, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”—and has since inspired countless memes. But all drama aside, sometimes enough is simply enough. And while torching a significant other’s belongings is likely best left on film (or in fantasies), the larger lesson is that some relationships just aren’t worth saving.
- All in love isn’t fair: Let’s face it: You can be the best partner imaginable and still get hurt. Several McMillan heroines are women who have tried to create a perfect life, only to watch it crumble to pieces (see: Bernadine, above). The fact is, there is no perfect world, partner or relationship—and people rarely get what they “deserve.” As many of McMillan’s characters discover, depending upon someone else for your happiness is a surefire way to get hurt. Happiness is ultimately and always an inside job.
- Some pain can’t be medicated: Addiction is a recurrent theme in the McMillan catalog, from the spiraling addictions of Mama’s Freda to the pill-popping Paris in A Day Late and a Dollar Short. Even our beloved Waiting to Exhale characters reveal dangerous vices (food, shopping, pills) en route to Getting to Happy. McMillan makes us painfully aware of the myriad ways we attempt to anesthetize ourselves, and reminds us that there is no lasting placebo for emotional pain. Healing isn’t found in a bottle, a syringe or a shopping bag; it starts at home.
- Secrets can poison a relationship: Secrets may make for thrilling fiction, but as McMillan would painfully and publicly discover in the dissolution of her real-life marriage to Jonathan Plummer (the inspiration for How Stella Got Her Groove Back), they can be absolutely devastating to a relationship.
For a relationship to thrive, transparency is key. And perhaps that’s McMillan’s greatest lesson of all—in both literature and life: There is no true love without honesty.
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.