Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Four Women, Too Many Men
By Roxanne Fequiere
As far as I’m concerned, the entire 124-minute running time of the film Waiting to Exhale hinges on one three-minute scene. Angela Bassett, in the role of the recently jilted Bernadine Harris, flings the door of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s closet open and glowers at his expensive watches arranged just so, his pristine suits, his shoes polished to perfection. “This motherfucker is psychotic,” she says, pure rage bubbling beneath every word. “I bet you there’s serial killers less anal.” Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned: a line originally written in 1697, but perhaps never captured in a single performance so perfectly until 1995. Feel free to go watch the scene now if you haven’t—I’ll wait.
Though I know I’ve seen the movie in its entirety a few times, I realized I couldn’t remember too many details aside from that one scene. (That, and Brandy, looking like the ultimate ‘90s teen dream, sittin’ up in her room, from the soundtrack.) Upon rewatching, I realized why: there is a lot of stuff going on in this movie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s even more going on in the book. Waiting to Exhale (the 1992 book) chronicles the lives and loves of four black thirtysomething women in the early ’90s, and at 456 pages, it has enough one night stands, lowlife men, and failed relationships to fill at least two seasons of a television series, let alone a two-hour movie.
Much like Sex and the City, Waiting to Exhale features characters that consider themselves self-sufficient and thoroughly modern women of the nineties, and yet dedicate what appears to be a disproportionate amount of time and energy to lamenting their singledom. I watched Sex and the City for the first time in 200_ and, eager to get caught up on what all the hype was about, made the mistake of watching the entire series over the course of one winter holiday break. It was utterly exhausting, and not just because of the late hours I was pulling to watch all those damn episodes. To quote my girl Miranda Hobbes, “How does it happen that four smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It’s like seventh grade but with bank accounts.”
I felt similarly depleted after powering through Waiting to Exhale. There were some welcome detours—characters that struggled to deal with their aging parents, discussions about the callousness that the fear of AIDS wrought, scenes describing board meetings of a civic organization called Black Women on the Move—but they seemed to serve little purpose other than to provide a buffer between lengthy dialogue about each character’s latest suitor.
I feel compelled to be cautious and kind with my disdain for these narratives, even as I sputter about how regressive and redundant they are. For starters, I’m much more forgiving when it comes to similar stories set in another era. Whether on film or in the pages of a book, I find that when I’m caught in the throes of nostalgia for a time I’ve never known, I’m willing to overlook a lot of the less than savory details.
The 1990s feel considerably more tangible, but I was all of four years old when Waiting to Exhale was published—it hardly makes sense to expect it to accommodate my highly personal, inevitably contemporary sensibilities. Besides, picking apart a piece of art because it doesn’t perfectly align with the real-life version of the world it depicts is one of those annoying things that people only ever seem to want to do with female-centric narratives. It’s almost enough to make you—oh, I don’t know—wish there were a wider range of nuanced female characters to choose from.
And yet: there were flashes of warmth and familiarity throughout Waiting to Exhale, from Robin’s reliance on astrology and vibes to guide her romantic decisions to Bernadine’s scorched earth policy regarding the man that wronged her after wasting eleven years of her life, one of which led to that still-iconic scene. And in a way, it also led to Brandy, looking like the ultimate ‘90s teen dream, sittin’ up in her room. I’d say it was all worth it.
Books & Films
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor
who might just make it after all.