From the overblown tragedies of playground brush burns to similarly inflated episodes of high school heartbreak, there's no better balm for the wounds of life than the comfort of a mother's love.
For mothers used to balancing the weight of loved ones' conflicts on their shoulders, a moment to drop the load without worrying who will pick up the pieces is all the affirmation they could ever ask. In "Who Asked You?," best-selling author Terry McMillan's latest novel, the ongoing journey of parenthood is stretched to the limits for four women who, despite their best efforts, spend what should have been their first years as empty-nesters wondering if their children will ever spread their wings.
"WHO ASKED YOU?"
By Terry McMillan
A far cry from Ms. McMillan's 1987 novel, "Mama," which explored parenthood through the lens of a poor single mother who admittedly fell short of the emotional role expected of her, the mothers in "Who Asked You?" don't turn to socioeconomics to pinpoint their children's shortcomings.
Betty Jean -- the 56-year-old mother of an addict daughter who abandons the care of two young sons, a son incarcerated for a carjacking and another son so ashamed of his former neighborhood he refuses to bring his wife to visit-- lives in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood with her bedridden husband of nearly 40 years. The notion of drugs and gang activity affecting her children's growth is raised only during a chapter that also mentions a lack of hugs and Betty Jean's saying the "F" word "five or six or 10 times" as potential roots of their demise.
Tammy, a white woman who is Betty Jean's best friend and neighbor, welcomes into her home a 23-year-old daughter, her out-of-work boyfriend and a racist brother who cut her off after she married a black man. Venetia, Betty Jean's sister and the only member of the crew whose children have actually left the house, plays the role of a cuckolded mother hen to a rich husband. Arlene, the sole single mother, sabotages any attempts her 28-year-old son makes toward autonomy and routinely boasts about her master's degree in psychology from Pepperdine and her home in black upper-class haven Baldwin Hills.
The novel is told through first-person accounts of the mothers, children, grandchildren, a school principal and others, a structure that robs readers of the opportunity to delve deeper into the primary stories of the mothers' struggles. This approach could be the novel's biggest shortcoming.
Additionally, in a tale where so many people need a brisk slap to the face to wake up to their own realities, everyone is armed with a pair of white gloves. Unsolicited opinions abound, whether they come from a social worker making stereotypical snap judgments or a home-care nurse with a scandalous secret and little else otherwise to offer the plot. Who asked you, indeed.
Yet in true McMillan form, the story also touches upon the humor, affection and persistence of love carrying families of all races and demographics through their most difficult times. The journey toward recognizing how much and how little a mother's love can accomplish is slow and at times, depressingly realistic. But the unintended lessons that came through the women learning the best ways to heal their children ended up ultimately leading to answers that would help them heal themselves.
Much like life, nothing was perfect in the end. But much like life, perfect can never make anyone better.
Terry McMillan will discuss "Who Asked You?" Sept. 30 at the Byham Theater during the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures event "An Evening With Terry McMillan." For more information, call 412-622-8866 or visit www.pittsburghlectures.org.
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.