Terry McMillan’s latest novel is of missed opportunities

By Sari Friedman Special to the Daily Planet
Monday February 26, 2001

Family. Can’t live with ‘em… Can’t live with ‘em. 

“A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” the latest novel from local author Terry McMillan, introduces the Prices, a family headed by fifty-five year old matriarch, Viola Price, who’s just landed in a hospital intensive care unit with severe asthma after being abandoned by her husband, Cecil. Viola’s voice is rich and powered up. She’s angry and quite vocal about it. If her life isn’t a soap opera, whose is? 

Viola Price thinks about each one of her children as she waits for her lunch tray, deconstructing them mercilessly, one by one … and then she moves on to Cecil.  

After this, the other family members get a turn. How easy it is to fall into each one of these characters. Viola’s son gets what he thinks is a Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes offer … then he realizes it’s a summons for past due child support. It’s the little things that get you down. Challenges like figuring out how to zip up your pants and stand at the same time. 

But larger challenges lurk as well. Viola’s daughter has to confront her own daughter’s story, a soap opera within a soap opera. Another daughter tries to understand herself in the context of TV sitcoms. Is she Jeannie in “I Dream of Jeannie,” or Denise Nicholson of “Room 222”? 

And each family member must face those too-real moments — Trying to act like you don’t care when a loved one leaves you, trying to live as a “female lion who don’t roar loud enough,” and trying to figure out a way to deal with another family member described “as a horsewho don’t pull his own weight.” 

“For me,” Terry McMillan says, “This novel, ‘A Day Late and a Dollar Short,’ is about missed opportunities. We, as people, always seem to believe we’ll have another chance, and sometimes we don’t get the chance. So my question was, what if you don’t?” 

As Viola Price says, There’s “a whole lotta weird s--- been going on” in every family. And yet, differences aside, every one of us is hungry for love. We all get sick, can’t find our car keys, pretend, feel jealous. McMillan brings out each individual family member’s fears, hopes and dreams… balanced only by the relief inherent in knowing we have a good story. This work of fiction is simply delicious. “Ain’t no time limit on heartache,” as one character says. It’s true. 

Cody’s Bookstore is sponsoring a reading by Terry McMillan tonight at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. 

Sari Friedman, whose short fiction and poetry appears in various literary magazines and anthologies, teaches writing at several local colleges.