Review: Who Asked You?

04Jan14

The first challenge I picked up for this year isn’t a challenge in the traditional sense: it’s a list I discovered at For Harriet, a blog that popped up in my Facebook sidebar after a conversation about race relations in the U.S. Like a lot of people, I’ve read the few works of African American literature assigned in school–a little Toni Morrison, a little Maya Angelou, a little trip through the Harlem Renaissance–but it occurred to me (especially in light of the recent Ani DeFranco debacle) that perhaps as a feminist I have an obligation to do–as one of the linked article’s comments pointed out–“more than the minimum.”

Luckily, every time I turn around, somebody is publishing a list of things I feel I should read. Since it was my original inspiration for branching out, I decided my first reading challenge should be For Harriet’s list, 10 Books Released by Black Women in 2013 You Should Read, and I’ve already finished Terry McMillan’s Who Asked You?

Photo from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Photo from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was easy, really, because McMillan made me care about her characters right away. Who Asked You? is the story of Betty Jean and her extended family. Betty Jean has worked hard all her life, but just when retirement is finally becoming achievable, there’s a double-whammy: first, her husband Lee David has developed Alzheimer’s disease; second, her daughter Trinetta leaves the grandchildren, Luther and Ricky, with Betty Jean, for what’s supposed to be a weekend…and then lasts much longer. Everybody in Betty Jean’s life–from her sisters to her other children to her best friend–has an opinion on how Betty Jean should handle these situations, but she chooses to steer by her own compass, regardless of consequences.

If you have a family, you know that the people who love you best can sometimes drive you craziest, and McMillan’s characters are true to life in this regard. People say and do all the careless things that families sometimes say and do to each other, but they also bring the love and the responsibility. Arguments, apologies, working together on solutions, weathering crises, and celebrating good times are all here. Because there’s a new narrator in each chapter, we get to see how every member of the family feels about every other member, and the private struggles each person is going through that affect her/his actions. If you don’t know these people, you know people like them.

Another thing I love about this book is that the characters are dynamic rather than static. People grow and change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. McMillan shows just how hard it can be to change, too, even with the best of intentions. The range of problems they face–battling drug addiction, losing a child, struggling to come out of the closet–are the kinds of issues real people grapple with every day. But the “bad guys” in this story are never the people themselves, who are simply flawed and fragile humans, and the possibility of redemption is always hanging just over the horizon. The bad guys are the obstacles to success they face, and the test is whether or not they will stick together or fall apart. Success, in this novel, is heavily tied to letting your family love you and help you, in spite of your differences.

I fear I’m oversimplifying things, but I really loved this book because it felt like I was reading about real people and real problems. Good fiction should illuminate the human experience, and that’s what McMillan has done here. Who Asked You? is a great pick for readers who like character-driven fiction and stories about families.

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