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MCMILLAN PACKS READABLE NARRATIVE WITH REAL ISSUES

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

By Terry McMillan

Viking

432 pages, $25.95

Terry McMillan is the master at knowing which buttons to push in the African American community and, therefore, her books sell.

Her latest book, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," is no different. In fact, McMillan's newest book is sure to sell millions of copies and, like her other works -- "Waiting to Exhale," one of 1996's most popular films, as was the 1998 release of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" -- this book is likely to hit the big screen. Or the small screen, such as "Disappearing Acts," showcased on HBO.

McMillan has a firm grasp of what sells, and her book has already gone through the roof.

McMillan's books speak to the frustration, hopes and dreams of an entire community. Her characters live out the frustrations many encounter in everyday life, and they also find a resolution -- even if it is ultimately a painful one.

McMillan's books may not have the depth one would expect, but they are nevertheless thought-provoking. A McMillan book is bound to gather a great deal of interest and discussion in book clubs, on talk shows and at dinner parties.

As a woman of color, the author speaks to the needs and frustrations many experience. And, as a woman of color, she sympathizes with the plight of the African-American male.

McMillan's work can be disappointingly shallow at times, but her overall theme is always on target. She has proven herself to be a noteworthy author with the ability to pull in readers. In other words, McMillan's work is salable and, therefore, a hot commodity.

In "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," McMillan turns to a fictional African-American family that is not necessarily typical. However, problems the characters encounter are based in reality and cut across racial boundaries.

Using matriarch Viola to voice a good portion of the early narrative, McMillan draws readers into the Price family, whether they want to be drawn in or not.

Charting the lives of Viola, her husband of 40 years, Cecil, and their four grown children almost becomes a sinful distraction. Sinful, because this family is so dysfunctional and their individual lives such a mess, it's a distraction from whatever problems readers may be suffering at the time.

McMillan skillfully turns her character's language into something that's very familiar and comforting. The words and syntax coming from the characters aren't always perfect yet they are distinctive to each one of them.

Husband Cecil is probably the most adorable character, rich in his speech and the way in which he turns a phrase. He's a gentle man who has made his share of mistakes, but is always trying to do better -- even when it comes to the younger woman with whom he's living.

It's uncertain whether the move out of their Las Vegas house had anything to do with Viola's asthma attack, which landed her in the hospital. But it has definitely had a profound effect on the adult children in the story.

Eldest child, Paris, is a highly successful caterer who is raising her son alone in San Francisco. She's an aggressive, take-charge woman who feels the obligation of being the oldest and having to be perfect. As a result, she starts popping pills to hide her insecurities.

Charlotte, the second oldest who is living in Chicago with her husband and three children, is miserable. She's miserable in her job at the post office, her many failed business ventures, and her inability to reconcile a lost youth. She doesn't seem to know how to be happy -- let alone forgiving of an imperfect husband.

Lewis always has an excuse. He seems to have invented the phrase "it wasn't me," when it comes to circumstances that constantly land him in jail. He doesn't have a job or make his child support payments, and he has a drinking problem. Despite his intelligence and potential, he just can't seem to get his life in order.

Janelle, the youngest, residing in Los Angeles with her teenage daughter and new husband, actually lives in a fantasy world filled with Tarot cards and crystal balls. Whatever problem she has, including ones with her daughter, Janelle turns to the supernatural.

Viola is the one who needs supernatural powers to deal with the concerns any responsible mother would have about her dysfunctional children. Of course, her grown children have their own opinions and rarely listen to their mother.

Despite its obvious commercial value and appeal, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" contains characters that readers can embrace. Read it now or wait for the movie that, if you can believe her, she adamantly claims will never happen.

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