WHO ASKED YOU? by Terry McMillan

Many years ago, I read Terry McMillan’s Waiting To Exhale, which I remember enjoying. I was glad to read about characters who didn’t necessarily look like me – white and twentysomething (at the time!). I haven’t read anything by McMillan in a long while, but I took up the offer of a review copy of Who Asked You? for the same reason. I read a lot about white, suburban moms, and I was happy to get out of that mold.

Who Asked You? follows a number of members of the family of Betty Jean Butler, an African-American woman in her late 50s living in a not-s0-great (but racially diverse) neighborhood in LA. When the book opens, Betty Jean’s life is very stressful. Her husband is deteriorating with Alzheimer’s Disease, living at home with her and being cared for during the day by a nurse. Betty Jean works for a hotel, delivering room service. Her daughter is a drug addict who has just dropped off her two elementary-aged sons, Luther and Ricky, at Betty Jean’s house for an undetermined period of time, and her youngest son, Dexter, is serving time for carjacking. Her oldest son, Quentin, lives in Oregon but has disavowed his roots and avoids his family. The other characters that round out the cast are Nurse Kim, who takes care of Mr. Butler; Betty Jean’s neighbor (and best friend) Tammy, who has problems of her own, like a pregnant, unmarried daughter and a gambling ex-husband; and Betty Jean’s two sisters, judgmental Arlene and religious, wealthy Venetia.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character. This is McMillan territory, so it’s an easy, fluid read. The characters here go through their ups and downs – none of them is perfect. Quentin gets out of jail, but ends up back in. Arlene refuses to accept her son for who he is, only realizing years later that she was wrong. Ricky takes a wrong turn, despite his grandmother’s warnings to stay clean. But by the end, the characters all find some sort of redemption. So while there is a lot of hardship here, it’s ultimately an uplifting book. Obama’s inauguration provides a convenient (too convenient?) milestone for the Butler family to measure their own success and pride by.

My main complaints about Who Asked You? are that it was pretty superficial at times – characters died, for example, and the grieving seemed to be pretty short and rather trite – and McMillan’s delving into the petty bickering among the three sisters got very tiresome. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue (“How did you find out that I told her that?” “She called me.” “I can’t believe she would tell you that I said that!” – type of dialogue) can be pretty annoying after a short while.

I listened to Who Asked You? on audio. It is narrated by four people: Phylicia Rashad (Betty Jean and her sisters), Michael Boatman (all of the male characters), Terry McMillan herself (Nurse Kim), and Carole DeSanti (Tammy). Phylicia Rashad was excellent – I could listen to her narrate a lot of audiobooks. The others were OK. Boatman had to cover a few different characters, and some were better than others. I wasn’t crazy about either McMillan or DeSanti, who sounded like she was acting. But Rashad’s narration made the audio worth it.

If you’re looking for a relatively light bestseller-y read that covers some surprisingly weighty topics, then you might enjoy Who Asked You?. McMillan fans seem mostly positive on this book, based on the reviews I’ve read.