In high school, my friends and I secretly passed around her books.
In the 1990s, educated, successful black women were not exactly common in fiction. But because Terry McMillan’s novels never ran away from sensuality and the complex dynamics of love, divorce and marriage, we weren’t supposed to be reading them.
Still, “Waiting to Exhale,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “Disappearing Acts” made their way into our backpacks before we saw them made into movies. We loved reading these books just as much as we loved watching “Martin” and “Living Single,” because we aspired to be black professionals. We wanted courage and exciting adventures like Stella. We wanted strength and perseverance like Bernadine.
In her new book, “I Almost Forgot About You” (Crown, 368 pp., $27), we meet Georgia Young, a 54-year-old optometrist. McMillan crafted this character to teach us the art of reinvention, introspection and of never giving up on yourself.
She’s been touring the country spreading the book’s message: The party ain’t over when your 30s end.
Speaking to McMillan is almost like talking to your favorite auntie. She is a proud 64-year-old, vibrant and fun and willing to share what she’s learned.
“There are so many women, and men, who have thrown in the towel,” McMillan tells me by telephone from her New York hotel room. “They are in their late 40s or 50s and maybe a little past that, and they have reached a plateau in their careers or love lives. They have almost flatlined. They are bored with their chosen profession, maybe they are divorced or have never been married. This is my way of saying you still have time to slide into home.”
Georgia Young runs her own practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it’s not her passion. She loves interior design and rehabbing furniture. She’s twice divorced and holding a grudge. Her children are grown. She wants to sell her practice and her big house and travel. But she’s scared.
“First and foremost is admitting you are unhappy,” McMillan says. “It’s hard to do because it means you have to do something about it rather than accept it. Otherwise you are a passive contributor in your own inertia or angst.”
So Georgia not only starts making plans to rediscover herself, she puts herself in check. How have her bitterness and fear played into her unhappiness? And from there, she goes on a journey of forgiving her exes and taking accountability for some of her own choices.
“Going through a very contentious divorce, I learned forgiveness is liberating,” McMillan says. “I was angry for three years. That’s a long time to be apoplectic. . . .
“After a while it becomes a way of life, and it permeates all other facets of your life and the people around you. The only person you are hurting is yourself. It’s important to let go of that anger and forgive so you can live.”
Healthy friendships play a part in holding that mirror up to your face, McMillan suggests. Georgia and her friends are in constant and brash conversation to keep one another honest.
“It’s a given with black women: We see ourselves as sisters, not just friends. We don’t B.S. each other. We are very honest. We get angry with each other. Sometimes we don’t speak for months, but usually, almost 90 percent of the time, what made us mad was the truth.
“I’m not saying other women don’t have these types of relationships, I know they do. I just know black women in particular consider their friends to be the people who are supportive and have your back but will also give you a lashing when your behavior was silly. Our friendships are another way of parenting.”
Friendship was the star of my favorite McMillan creation, “Waiting to Exhale” — both the book and movie. The 2010 sequel, “Getting to Happy,” found the women in their 50s and still diving into love’s layers. Rumors of an “Exhale” television show are circulating online.
McMillan says there is interest but nothing she can confirm.
“Sometimes Hollywood thinks that everything that happens to you only happens when you are young,” she says. “The message is your youth is the most important part of your life. I am just sick of it. They make it seem as if our lives are not as intriguing, sexual or fascinating, and I really resent it. Life isn’t over at 40. It’s not all downhill at 55.”