Waiting to exhale in the thin atmosphere of troubled siblings

These two sisters can't speak to one another without fighting: One's a perfectionist who's addicted to painkillers; the other hates her job and is convinced her husband is cheating on her. Plus, their brother is an alcoholic; another sister's husband is molesting her daughter; and their father has walked out on their mother after 38 years of marriage. Can these family members overcome their problems and learn to get along? Find out - on the next Oprah.

Actually, none of Terry McMillan's novels has been featured on Oprah's book club, despite the fact that she is possibly the most commercially successful black female author today. While her bestselling portrayals of the lives (and loves) of middle-class black women, such as "Waiting to Exhale," have spawned hit movies, they have lacked the deeper level of insight often found in Oprah's picks.

In her latest effort, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," McMillan attempts to add this deeper dimension - namely, by giving her characters greater adversity to overcome. Unfortunately, her message is hampered by uneven writing and a formulaic plot that runs to cliches.

The story focuses on one dysfunctional family, the Prices, who experience a litany of modern woes, from teenage pregnancy to infidelity to addiction to gambling. Lest the reader question whether any one family could really have so many problems, there are a few pointed references to the Kennedys (the resemblance ends there).

Each chapter of the book is presented from a different character's point of view. This is a challenging format, and McMillan seems to struggle with it. The characters don't develop distinctive voices, making it difficult to tell at the beginning of each chapter who is speaking. They also waver uncomfortably between black dialect and standard English. This is somewhat understandable in the case of Paris and Janelle, who both attended college, but it seems to occur unintentionally with other characters.

More problematic, however, is the way McMillan repeatedly injects her own analysis into her characters' thoughts. In just one example, Lewis, the alcoholic brother, reveals that he was sexually abused as a child by his cousins.

"I know that this incident has probably had some effect on my personality and everything, but I don't think it's been the deciding factor in what kinda man I am today," he says. "I'm a perfect example of somebody that turned out okay." Just in case we've missed the irony, McMillan has him add, "And I ain't in no ... denial either."

The book's emotional center is Viola, the family matriarch, whose tell-it-like-it-is style provides some moments of humor. In the opening chapter, Viola compares her four children to animals: "Paris is a female lion who don't roar loud enough," Lewis is "a horse who don't pull his own weight," Charlotte is a bull, and Janelle is a lamb who's "always being led out to some pasture and don't know how she got there." The trouble is, McMillan fails to develop the characters much beyond these early outlines.

Over the course of the novel, the Prices face up to their problems. Spurred into action by a family crisis, they learn to be honest with themselves and each other, and get their lives back on track.

But the made-for-TV ending is too simplistic and tidy. Even Oprah's guests don't solve their problems this easily.

Liz Marlantes is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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