Terry McMillan went straight to the bank with 1992’s best-selling Waiting to Exhale. Now younger sister Rosalyn is following close behind with Knowing, an equally enthralling first novel about an African-American Detroit factory worker with four children who aspires to a white-collar career over the objections of her husband. If Rosalyn achieves her sister’s level of literary success, it will be because she too has cut across ethnic lines to tap into the fantasies that fuel the romance-novel market. Those books are all about feisty women learning to get what they want — whether it’s in a Jackie Collins sex-and-shopping epic or one of those historical romances with bad illustrations of Fabio on the cover.
What Terry — and Rosalyn — do so well in their novels is to graft stock romance fantasies onto everyday life. Readers aren’t sent to castles in 17th-century Scotland or tony addresses in Beverly Hills; they’re plunked into the lives of women they not only recognize but like. Waiting to Exhale focused on the very real dilemma of finding a man who appreciates a smart mouth on a strong lady (a man who rarely looks like Fabio — or Denzel, for that matter). Knowing‘s heroine, Ginger Montgomery, is determined to leave the automobile factory where she’s toiled for the last 20 years and get her real estate license. But her husband, Jackson, can’t stand the idea, so Ginger dutifully continues to feed and clean up after him and the kids — until the day she finally stands up for herself.
Any woman who’s ever read a book on the beach knows that most romantic heroines don’t wash dishes. Yet that’s just the sort of thing Ginger does, and somehow, it works. Rosalyn McMillan has had the nerve — or the naiveté — to stage a romance amid the down and dirty details of a woman’s day-to-day life, in which the real adventure is balancing ambition, motherhood, sexuality, spirituality, friendship, and housework. The minute realism of her story does tend to bog down the narrative in places, but the book’s literary weaknesses are its emotional strengths.
Of course, some readers prefer their heroines to fight their fictional battles as far away in time and place from the kitchen table as possible. But it’s likely Rosalyn will discover, as did Terry, that a woman’s self-esteem is a powerful — and profitable — thing. B