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A Most Happy Stella

Novelist Terry McMillan loves the good and rich life in 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back'

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

IMAGINE FOR a moment, if you will, an adventure-fantasy story without dragons or evil kings--The Lord of the Rings without, well, the Lord of the Rings. Imagine the Joads getting, say, a small business loan so that they can stay on in Oklahoma and operate a highly successful tractor repair shop, or Heathcliff returning from his trip abroad to find Hindley waiting for him at the threshold of Wuthering Heights, ale mug in hand, declaring, "Edgar's dead, and Cathy's been calling for you. My blessings to the marriage because you're my brother, and I love you, man!"

Imagine a murder mystery without a plot twist or a false clue. Imagine a novel with little or nothing to hinder the protagonists from a long, slow, graceful slide into riches and the happily-ever-

Imagine all of this and more, but unless you are one of the many unlucky souls who have already read How Stella Got Her Groove Back, you may still not come close to understanding how much Terry (Waiting to Exhale) McMillan has written all of the heart and feeling out of what could have been a perfectly good story--at least, it must have looked perfectly good in the contract proposal.

Stella, a 42-year-old Bay Area investment analyst and divorced single mother with more disposable income than should be legal, decides on impulse to take an island vacation break while her son is visiting his father. In Jamaica, she meets a 20-year-old Caribbean hunk with every good quality known to man, including hairy arms and legs (a quality of some import, as McMillan makes reference to it every chance she gets). Broken-hearted that she must leave after only a couple of days hanging out with this boy-man, whom she has fallen in love with, Stella returns home to the discovery that she has been downsized out of her job while she was away. Among other things, this turn of events could wreck her plans to invite her Jamaican boyfriend to visit her in America.

This is the setup for what could have been a highly interesting novel with the potential to explore the conflicts and implications of a May-December romance, the poignancy and doubt of a long-distance love affair, and the struggles of a single parent who has just seen her enviable lifestyle plummet to rock bottom. But as if she wanted nothing to interfere with the damn good time she intends to have, McMillan goes about systematically resolving and then dumping all of these conflicts she herself so carefully laid out in the opening pages.

Potential problems from the ex-husband (who might have objected to her bringing a neo-teenage lover into the home with his son) are quickly disposed of by making him so weary and overweight that he must be in bed every night by 9 o'clock. The son himself shrugs off having another man in the house and, when told about the 20-year age difference, quips, "age ain't nothing but a number, Mom." How one person could end up with a perfect lover, a perfect child, an ex who causes no trouble and unlimited funds is one of the unexplained mysteries of an unfair life.

Oh, yes, did we tell you about those unlimited funds? Upon discovering she has lost her job, Stella has a very momentary case of the worries, and then realizes, "[T]hank the Lord my mother taught me how to save my allowance for a rainy day which has been reincarnated and come back as tax-free municipal bonds ... and I am also grateful that years ago I made some solid investments in a now-famous coffee company and a very popular consumer shopping establishment. ... [W]hich basically means that I can afford not to work for the next two and a half to three years without freaking out."

It's as if Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, seeing her coach-and-four dissolve into rats-and-pumpkin-pie around her, reaches into her apron to pull out a handkerchief, only to discover that $10,000-limit MasterCard that she sent away for some months before, put into her pocket and forgot about until just that moment.

Well, authors are entitled to one such turn of events per book, I suppose, to get out of a corner they've written themselves into. McMillan, however, abuses the privilege. Stella curbs her spending-spree lifestyle not one whit, as if she knows full well that the book will end before the three-year grace period is over. We are treated to so many details of what she purchases in her trips to the local malls that one is tempted to look in the back of the book to see if the receipts have been reproduced there.

FOLLOWING THIS feeding of the local economy, Stella impulsively decides to return to Jamaica for a second vacation and a renewal of her romance, taking her son and niece along with her (first class, of course).

Upon her return home, she sends the manchild a ticket to come visit her in California. That, by the way, is how she resolves the last potentially dramatic plot line of long-distance love.

So how does McMillan fill the rest of the novel's 368 pages? Well, she has her own sense of what constitutes drama. Twice in Jamaica, she is stood up by her lover (and though he made quite an impression on Stella, I can't remember his name for the life of me, which tells you something). Anyhow, Stella is thrown into all sorts of hissy fits of self-doubt until she learns that (in the first instance) he sent her several messages but her phone message light was broken and (in the second instance) he could not join her for dinner because the guards would not let him in the gate at the resort where she is staying.

We also learn that Jamaicans say "mon" instead of "man." McMillan does this often, to make sure the reader gets the point. She speculates quite a bit on the length of the Jamaican penis, though she declines to give a definitive answer once she has tested the real thing. We are treated to a book-long critique of the authors and books that Stella is reading this summer, including a certain best-seller-made-into-a-blockbuster-movie by--guess who?--Terry McMillan. (Stella thinks she's overrated; at this point it all gets a little weird.) And McMillan plugs Home Depot a lot, sending Stella back there so many times that one begins to wonder if this was the "very popular consumer shopping establishment" she was talking about having investments in. Stella, I mean. Not McMillan.

There is an interesting subtext to How Stella Got Her Groove Back: the story of a woman once scorned by the world who has suddenly come into great success but who cannot enjoy that success because she spends most of her time and energy rubbing it into the face of the world.

But given the fact that McMillan is probably far too close to the subject of this book--purportedly herself--to have any perspective on this, she leaves readers to make such observations on their own, with no help from the narrator.

In any event, Stella should settle the argument as to whether Terry McMillan is a writer of serious literary fiction or a writer of romance-genre fiction. Since both require of the author the ability to fashion and follow an interesting plot, she is quite obviously neither.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan; Viking; 368 pages; $23.95 cloth.

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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