Perhaps it's best to tell the reader right off the bat that the feisty Viola Price, matriarch of Terry McMillan's latest novel A Day Late and a Dollar Short, dies halfway through the book. McMillan etches the character so vividly that when she passes away, the reader grieves, and indeed the loss of Viola's robust, irritated, comical voice leaves an empty spot in the narrative. In terms of the book's overall appeal, however, it hardly matters.

One of McMillan's greatest strengths is her spot-on characterization of people and situations you recognize, especially if you're an African-American woman. Yes, that's my mother, one mutters, shaking one's head ruefully. Or that's my Aunt So and So, or Cousin Ditz, or my best friend or that numbskull I used to date. Once in a while one will be even tempted to admit, yes, that's me, but don't tell anybody.

McMillan's latest novel opens with Viola in the hospital for one of her asthma attacks, contemplating her wayward children. They are the perfectionist Paris, a successful caterer still chafing under the burden of being the oldest child; the prickly Charlotte, who still believes, a la Tommy Smothers, that her mother liked Paris best; Lewis, the loser with the genius level IQ who can't seem to stay out of trouble even if he tries; and Janelle, the dingbat whose lifelong flightiness is stopped only by an outrageous crime committed against her adolescent daughter. There's also Viola's estranged husband, Cecil, jheri-curled and polyester clad, who has taken up with a young welfare mom. As with most of McMillan's books, the narrative voice is straightforward, with an acerbic humor like a bite into a not quite ripe persimmon. We can tell the players apart immediately; eventually we can recognize children and even fractious spouses and ex-spouses. In McMillan's capable hands, even peripheral folks like Viola's kindly next-door neighbor and her strange, waspish sisters are clearly drawn.

In the McMillan tradition the adult men, Lewis, Cecil and the sisters' husbands and ex-husbands, are not what they ought to be. This isn't man-bashing on McMillan's part, but her conveyance of the truth that a lot of men are dogs, or dogs in training, and her ongoing examination of the mystery of why smart women hook up with them. Perhaps another part of McMillan's popularity stems from the mistaken belief by many of her readers that, with their own nutty families and eye-popping messes, they, too, could have written Waiting to Exhale, or Stella or Mama if they only had the time!

All in all, A Day Late and a Dollar Short is more a snapshot of a critical moment in the ongoing travails of a particular family than a deep, analytical opus. Even momentous events like multiple pregnancies are kept subordinate to the main action of bickering kinfolk dealing with the death of their mother. In the end we regain something of Viola's voice when the Prices gather after her funeral to read the letters she sent to each of them, and we realize we miss this stubborn, opinionated, funny lady. Not as much as her children, who come late to the realization that they did love one another after all.

Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.

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