No one does slice-of-life like Terry McMillan, whose latest novel sets us down in a shabby modern-day Los Angeles neighborhood where Betty Jean Butler struggles to make ends meet and keep her family together.
Her daughter, Trinetta, is caught in the clutches of drug addiction. Her son, Dexter, is in prison for a foolish carjacking. And her other son, Quentin, is a successful chiropractor who wants nothing to do with his family. Add to all this a husband succumbing to senility, two busybody sisters and a fulltime job at a local hotel, and Betty Jean’s hands aren’t just full—they’re overflowing. Luckily, Betty Jean has a wisecracking best friend across the street to lean on, and a sassy nurse to help care for her husband—even if that care is delivered in a way found in no medical textbook.
When Trinetta leaves her two young sons with Betty Jean before disappearing into the streets, Betty Jean knows something’s got to give.
“Even though I haven’t told anybody, I’m scared,” she says. “What if I can’t handle all this responsibility? What if I’ve forgotten how to be a parent? . . . I don’t want them to turn out like mine did. I want them to be proud, honest, dignified, civil, kind and loving. I want them to be strangers to trouble.”
Betty Jean has to swallow her pride and ask for help in ways she never imagined. Slowly, in their own ways, friends and family band together to help her raise the boys, who have promising futures despite their troubled past.
McMillan will likely always be best known for her runaway bestsellers How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, both made into movies. But Who Asked You? stands up to any of McMillan’s previous work, with a cast of wholly memorable characters and a plucky heroine you genuinely want to win. Although McMillan writes primarily about African-American families, her ever-present wry humor and keen portrayal of love in all its exasperating imperfection make her work universal.