What can you say about a book you think you should have disliked more? I admit upfront that I took Terry McMillan's new novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, on vacation and was so sucked in by the chatty, dishy, you-go!-girl tale that I read it in one night. That said, I found it hard to respect myself in the morning.
Of course, if I had been on the kind of vacation that the jaded, 42-year-old Stella takes in the book a steamy trip to a swinging Club Med-like resort I wouldn't have had time for any candy-ass reading. I'd be too busy having orgasms that mimicked the crashing waves outside my balcony with a man young enough to be my son.
Unfortunately, the vacation that forms the core of Stella is also the book's weakest link. McMillan has written a fairy tale about a middle-aged female buppie who finds love at a Jamaican hotel with a 20-year-old native. Normally, I'd never buy the concept that a successful investment analyst from the San Francisco area could find a soul mate in a young Jamaican cook. Why? Because it's a dirty little secret that many single women go to Caribbean resorts hoping to meet eligible, socially compatible men and wind up having affairs with the Ping-Pong pros just so they can say they had a fling. Love rarely has anything to do with it.
But then I found out that McMillan actually had an affair with a local man during a trip she took to Jamaica last year and the couple now live together near San Francisco. Still, a whiff of desperation and misogyny permeates the book and ultimately makes it difficult to admire. What's disturbing is how McMillan feels she has to set up the story and Stella.
As in her smash Waiting to Exhale, McMillan writes as if she were your best girlfriend, your sharpest, savviest, funniest confidant, your own personal Oprah. This time out she's more experimental, with sassy stream-of-consciousness sentences that run on for a paragraph or more think Jackee crossed with William Faulkner. It's disappointing, then, when she can't just let the enormously likable Stella, competent career woman and loving single mother, have a little self-esteem. Though she's become one of the foremost chroniclers of African-American life in the 1990s, McMillan might be mistaken for an angry guy in the depressing way she repeatedly allows Stella to consider herself nearly ancient at age 42. ''Why does he want to do the nasty with me?'' Stella wonders after meeting young hunk Winston Shakespeare. ''Because I'm old. That's why....He wants to do a comparison study.''
Even more troubling, especially early in the book, are Stella's similarly self-loathing, obsessive riffs on feminine hygiene and oral sex. ''I'll be glad when somebody invents a twenty-five-cent douche or feminine wipes dispenser and puts them in all women's public rest rooms,'' says Stella. ''I mean, can you really smell too clean?''
What saves Stella is McMillan's exceptional talent for dead-on details and dialogue that make you feel as if you're a fly on the wall inside Stella's head. It's a love story that's also a page-turner. As Stella and Winston's romance deepens, the story grows sweeter, more compelling, and more real. You root for this pair and you've got to find out what happens to them. ''I am sort of regaining my virginity,'' Stella tells Winston, ''if you get my drift.''
Ultimately, though, Stella is not just about regaining your virginity or getting your groove back. It's about the possibility of an old-fashioned happy ending in a newfangled world. I wouldn't place any bets on the longevity of this union in real life, but the ending was so satisfyingly romantic that I think I let out a sigh of relief. I guess you could say McMillan is finally letting us exhale. B