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Book Review

Delicious Family Saga Finds Terry McMillan in Top Form

A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT By Terry McMillan Viking $25.95, 432 pages

February 16, 2001|PAULA L. WOODS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's hard to believe that it's been only nine years since Terry McMillan started what amounted to a reading and publishing revolution. It was 1992 when her seminal novel, "Waiting to Exhale," struck its first blow among single women who identified with that book's four female protagonists and their search for love. The novel spent more than six months on various bestseller lists and spawned a virtual sub-genre of fiction, the "girlfriend" novel, that influenced everyone from E. Lynn Harris and Eric Jerome Dickey to Candace Bushnell.

McMillan's next novel, 1996's "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," was a continuation of the single woman's quest for love, this time with a much younger man, that was written in a stream-of-consciousness style that annoyed some readers but entertained others. Written in the maelstrom of emotions McMillan experienced in the wake of the back-to-back losses of her mother and best friend, "Stella" eased aside another book McMillan had begun, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short." It would be three years before McMillan returned to the unfinished novel. Readers can only be grateful that she did, for "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" finds McMillan in top form as she weaves together, through the story of the dysfunctional Price family, a poignant yet hilarious narrative that deepens and extends the themes of love, loss and family only touched upon in her earlier work.

The novel, told in six pitch-perfect, distinctive voices, is driven by matriarch Viola Price, who we encounter as she lies in a Las Vegas intensive care unit, victim of a severe asthma attack. Down but definitely not out, Viola indulges in her favorite pastime--worrying about her far-flung children: "Can't nobody tell me nothing I don't already know. At least not when it comes to my kids. . . . I know I get on their nerves--but they get on mine, too--and they always accusing me of meddling in their business, but, hell, I'm their mother. It's my job to meddle." And meddle she does, ruminating over the problems--real and perceived--of each of her grown children: Paris in Northern California, "a female lion who don't roar loud enough"; Los Angeles-based Lewis, "a horse who don't pull his own weight"; Charlotte, the bullheaded second daughter in Chicago; baby of the family Janelle in suburban Los Angeles, "a lamb . . . always being led out to some pasture and don't know how she got there." Add to the mix Viola's estranged husband Cecil, "a bad habit I've had for thirty-eight years," and the reader thinks they, like Viola, pretty much have the Price family pegged.

Which is both true and spectacularly untrue at the same time, for as Viola herself admits, "Life is like a jigsaw puzzle . . . you have to see the whole picture and then put it together piece by piece." As the other members of the Price family take center stage, brooding over their lives and their relationships with Viola and one another, McMillan provides not only contrasting voices but surprising viewpoints. Lewis, we find, is an alcoholic dreamer but also suffers from debilitating arthritis; Charlotte, a postal worker, is consumed by long-simmering anger and jealousy. Janelle, the slightly ditsy, picture-perfect homemaker, must face her denial about her daughter's problems. Successful caterer Paris, in her quest for perfection for herself and son Dingus, has taken to abusing painkillers, while long-suffering Cecil has been so verbally abused by his wife that he leaves, trailing a slew of problems with the IRS, bruised feelings of love and profound regret behind him.

By the time most of the family assembles in Las Vegas to check on their ailing mother and later in Chicago and Northern California, the stage is set for some trademark McMillan family fireworks. Since her earliest novels, McMillan has had an uncanny ability to render family conflict with both humor and compassion, but in "A Day Late" her skill is honed to a razor-sharp edge. Coupled with the Rashomon-like effect of the family's secrets, truths and pain as revealed by successive narrators, the novel constantly surprises as it enlightens.

"A Day Late and a Dollar Short" is undoubtedly McMillan's finest novel to date, but because her writing style is so accessible, McMillan's work is too often dismissed as "breezy," as if colloquial narrative is incompatible with craft or skill. Yet beneath the one-liners and cut-to-the-chase zingers, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" is a marvel of carefully constructed misinformation, revelation and dramatic conflict that look much easier to duplicate than they actually are. All told, they add up to a triumph for McMillan and a rich reward for her fans, of which there should be a growing number for this affecting and life-affirming read.

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