'Stella' is no 'Waiting to Exhale,' but provides amusement

by Shelly-Ann Scott | 8/6/96 5:00am

The latest offering from acclaimed author, Terry McMillan, is a modern day fairy tale, with a slight casting change for Cinderella.

"How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is the story of a 42-year-old African-American woman who has everything going for her: a career in corporate America as an investment analyst complete with a six figure salary, a beautiful home and an even more beautiful son to share it with.

Divorced, Stella Payne is disillusioned with relationships and the men that surround her. Resigned to a "maintenance relationship," Stella has not had a real date in months and retains an open-ended association with a married man geared to "maintaining" her sexual appetite.

At this point in her life, Stella does not have a man to call her own and feels that finding that special black prince at her age may be unlikely.

With her son visiting his father for a while, Stella is finally alone for the first time in months. She soon realizes that it has been too long since she has done anything for herself or by herself.

Seduced by a television advertisement saying "Come to Jamaica," Stella finds herself on a plane headed to the enchanted Caribbean, companionless and without a child in tow.

The reader can assume at this point that Stella is neither shy nor retiring, because it takes some courage to pick yourself up to travel to a tropical paradise alone.

Still beautiful and vibrant at 42, Stella is nevertheless taken aback when she catches the eye of a Jamaican man exactly half her age.

Stella finds herself enamored with Winston Shakespeare, a tall, M&M brown, timid 20-year old assistant cook at a resort hotel.

At first she takes his affectations jokingly, but soon she figures out that this "boy" really desires her, and more than that, she desires him also!

Neither does it hurt his chances that his "beautiful thick lips" seem to wrap themselves around each word he utters in the same way that his scent seems to invade her nostrils whenever he is around.

Barely in the tropics for a day, Stella now finds herself in the midst of an infatuation with someone who cannot even drink legally in the United States of America.

Stella figures she can teach the young man a thing or two about women and love. However, Winston proves to be the teacher, and Stella begins a voyage of rediscovery.

His youth, which she thought was a disadvantage, is now realized as his greatest asset, because he is too young to have begun to play games with women or to hide his feelings.

Stella, in turn, is learning again how to trust her innermost and deepest feelings with another person, but she is a reluctant pupil.

In typical fashion, Terry McMillan has provided us with a heroine with a sense of humor and a fatalistic attitude towards life, that does not fail her even in a situation that she herself would find laughable, if her emotions were not so hopelessly entangled.

Her sisters offer vastly different types of advice: Vanessa thinks Stella should get as much as she can, and then some, from the young Jamaican before her vacation is over.

While her very married and pregnant sister, Angela, thinks Stella is carrying on scandalously.

Neither of them, however, seem to realize that she is falling helplessly in love with this "child," and that this relationship is not just another summer fling.

Being Jamaican myself, I almost agreed with Angela when she said that all Winston wanted was a green card to the United States (I love my countrymen, but I also know them pretty well).

Interestingly, though, McMillan does not seem to care whether or not her readers believe in Winston's sincerity, or whether we think that this is true love.

The legitimacy of their relationship is not the subject of this novel. The novel's purpose is to justify Stella's right to act on her feelings, and not to worry about the reaction of family, friends or neighbors.

The debate that rages within our heroine is whether or not she should sacrifice a possible future with Winston and preserve the efficient routine that her life has become, or throw caution to the winds and live for the present, letting tomorrow take care of itself.

Women everywhere will cheer Stella's proclivity to act rather than debate too long, and thankfully, act she does. If you want to know how she acts, then go buy or borrow this book, it is an anthem of self empowerment, written in the humble, honest voice of one of today's premiere authors.

This novel, the first since last year's smash hit "Waiting to Exhale" is not as imaginary as it may seem on the surface.

McMillan, now 44, meet a 20-ish resort hotel employee named Jonathan Plummer while on a vacation trip to Jamaica. They now live together in McMillan's home in Danville, California.

The former Stanford writing teacher has enjoyed increased success on the literary circuit after the publication of "Waiting to Exhale," a novel many men have deemed sexist.

Her first two novels returned modest results, however "Waiting to Exhale" proved that we have yet to see the tip of McMillan's iceberg.

Almost 700,000 hard copies of the book have been sold and demand has warranted the production of 3 million copies in paperback. The screen version of "Waiting to Exhale," starring songstress Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, netted $67 million in grosses.

McMillan was paid a staggering $6 million for "Stella" and 800,000 copies of the Book-of-the-Month Club selection have now been printed. Movie rights to "Stella" have garnered a undisclosed seven figure deal.

Fans of "Waiting to Exhale" who eagerly awaited "Stella" should not expect the social commentary prevalent in "Exhale" that rung true to so many women, but rather accept the novel as a seeming flight of fancy that is, in truth, closer to fact than fiction.

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