Terry McMillan's 1996 book, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is a versatile novel, touching on qualities from many different best-seller genres. Though art critics seemed dismayed with McMillan's third story, sales figures for both the novel and the movie indicate that audiences seemed to enjoy "Stella." In 368 pages, McMillan manages to mesh the typical vacation and romance novels with a work of fiction by an African American female, all while riding on the coattails of her previous best-seller "Waiting to Exhale." She intertwines fact and fantasy, detailing a love affair that is almost entirely autobiographical. Furthermore, for those who have no interest in reading, the movie version of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" was sure to please anyone who missed the book. The resulting mixed genre is a best-selling mass-market success, with qualities that entertain some readers and displease others.
Genre One: "Follow-Up Best-Seller"
One possible genre for "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" can be described as the "Follow-Up Best Seller." Though "Stella" followed four years after the publication of "Waiting to Exhale" the success of McMillan's second novel was fresh in the minds of McMillan readers. According to a UVA Best-Sellers Database entry by Preethy George, Bowker's Annual revealed that 663,333 copies sold of the hardback first edition before May 1992. The Pocket Book Paperback of "Waiting to Exhale" sold around 2.5 million copies. After 38 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list Waiting to Exhale was clearly a success. (7)
Sales figures for "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" reflect similar success although the critics seemed to appreciate McMillan's 1996 novel less than her 1992 book. Deirdre Donahue for USA Today remarked, "The problem with the book is that there is simply too much Stella, too few other voices and too little plot other than Stella's Jamaican holiday. What made "Waiting to Exhale" such a tour de force was McMillan's ability to conjure up the lives and experiences of four very different women (5)."
Kim Campbell for the Christian Scientist Monitor had similar sentiments. "People who enjoyed McMillan's 1992 bestseller "Waiting to Exhale" may want to skip this surprisingly uneven follow-up. Gone are the well-drawn characters and storylines from the previous book, the author's third. Instead, readers get a tensionless tale about a black divorcee in her 40s and her relationship with a Jamaican man half her age. Besides its weak plot (based on events in the author's life), the novel features one-dimensional characters and often wince-worthy dialogue (11)."
Genre Two: "Novel with a Successful Movie Version"
McMillan co-wrote the screenplay for How Stella Got Her Groove Back with script-writer Ron Bass whose other works include "Rain Man," "Dangerous Minds" and "When a Man Loves a Woman (12)." This is the second collaborative effort between McMillan and Bass who also teamed up to write the screenplay for "Waiting to Exhale." The 1998 movie production of "Stella" featured actress Angela Bassett, who, consequently, also performed the leading role in the movie version of "Waiting to Exhale." Supporting actor Taye Diggs played Stella's young lover Winston Shakespeare.
Whoopi Goldberg's role is a feature created solely for the film adaptation of the novel. Her character, Delilah, is Stella's best friend and travel companion. This is an interesting divergence from the novel, in which Stella travels to Jamaica alone. In the movie, Delilah is a voice of reason, who dies at the end of the film. Delilah's roots, however, spring from McMillan's close friend DorisJean Austin who died of liver cancer two years prior to the publishing of "How Stella Got Her Groove back." This is evidence of the autobiographical thread that runs throughout the novel and continues even further into the movie.
On the whole, the movie seems to be a successful example of an African-American film since its lead character is a self-supporting prosperous Black female. Jay Carr for the Boston Globe remarked, "Glossy romantic fantasy doesn't get any glossier than How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Like her first novel-to-film, this one is dedicated to the proposition that upmarket black visibility has been ridiculously lacking in films from the Hollywood assembly line (3)." With a cast of African-American actors, and a successful R&B soundtrack, "Stella" attempts, at least in part, to reclaim cinema for Black artists. The musical score for "Stella" included singles by African-American performers such as Stevie Wonder, Wyclef Jean, Mary J. Blige and K-Ci & JoJo. The soundtrack also led to the success of its first single, "Luv Me, Luv Me" by artists Janet Jackson and Shaggy (9).
Duane Byrge for the BPI Entertainment News Wire commented on the target audience for the film, remarking, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back surely has its niche among mature black females, but the spicy, touching romantic comedy about a 40-year-old black woman's midlife rut should win wider appeal among intelligent moviegoers burned out by car crashes, explosions and comets. Adapted from Terry McMillan's ribald, heartfelt novel and starring Angela Bassett in the title role, "Stella's" got plenty of style and brains. It's a sexier, sassier version of Hollywood's old-time romances (2)." His praiseful review is rare among critics who often express both positive and negative opinions of the film, however Byrge's statement reflects the general appeal of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" amongst a varied audience of moviegoers.
Production of the film led to the release of a movie-tie in edition by Signet Paperback, although sales figures for this specific edition are unavailable.
Genre Three: "Vacation/Travel Fiction"
McMillan's relaxed writing style, simple plot and exotic setting make "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" a mindless read, appropriate for audiences who read for pleasure and entertainment. The Jamaican landscape that McMillan describes is a perfect fit for a genre that can be described as "Vacation or Travel Fiction." Stephen Holden for the New York Times touches upon the exotic eroticism that pervades throughout this vacation fantasy noting that the novel portrays "a tropical paradise as a sexual Mecca beckoning tired American businesswomen to shed their clothes and inhibitions and roll around with the local talent (8)." The setting may be an asset to the book, as it allows readers to escape into a different time and place. Colorful descriptions of the scene paint the beach, the ocean, and a plush hotel room with a view and a balcony. "It all looks different. Everything is green and lush, with giant banana trees lining the asphalt path like a jungle and flowers I've never seen or smelled before. Those fuchsia-colored ones?what are they called??oh yeah, hibiscus, and I think people eat those don't they and then clumps of yellow and orange and white and I'm thinking my landscaper could learn something (McMillan, 44)."
Genre Four: "Romance"
The story for "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" involves the budding romance between Stella and Winston, a young student from Negril, Jamaica. Stella's relaxing vacation turns into a seemingly impossible courtship that forces Stella to choose between her head and her heart. The story has all the classic components of the "typical Romance novel." Some reviewers such as Colin Covert even refer to "Stella" as a "Harlequin romance (4)." It throws an older female heroine into the hands of a handsome and enticing male suitor. The hero is youthful and intelligent. The love affair begins on the sun-bathed banks of an exotic locale. The lustful aura of the older woman-younger man fantasy, coupled with numerous scenes of physical interaction between Stella and Winston make "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" steamy and successful.
The hurdle in the story (since there always has to be an obstacle) centers on the lovers' differences in age and location. Stella is old enough to be Winston's mother. She lives in California, while he resides in Jamaica. However, a carelessly happy ending is pleasing for the romance-reader. The relationship resolves itself easily with few complications as Winston decides to move to the states to be with Stella.
Some seem to think that this resolution is too simple. Covert compared the story of "Stella" to a contemporary movie called "White Palace" that featured Susan Sarandon and James Spader. The story dealt with the similar theme of love in face of age difference, "with the added twist that he was snobby upper-crust and she was scrappy working-class." In his review for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis Minnesota, Covert noted "Complications such as that would make "Stella" a lot more entertaining. So would characters you could believe in. The lovers are so idealized that they're scarcely human. Couldn't Stella have been just a little embittered? Couldn't Winston have laid some uncomfortable demands on her? Wouldn't a little conflict have jolted the story to life?" (4)
On the other hand, praise for "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is usually connected to the freedom with which Stella approaches life. Stella's choice to pursue love and happiness regardless of the constraints of modern society is an admirable example to many readers. Steve Jones for USA Today lists three overriding themes in Stella's story that McMillan's audience admires: transgenerational love, cultural cross-pollination, spiritual liberation (9). Stella loves a younger man. Winston is Jamaican. Stella abandons her normal routine, becoming vulnerable to love.
Genre Five: "Autobiography"
Another genre touched upon by "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is the genre of autobiography. Background information about the author reveals remarkable parallelism between McMillan and her main character. Both are African-American females who support themselves with a high-paying job. Both are single mothers. Both find romance during a Jamaican vacation, and evolve into a relationship with a twenty-year-old lover. The real life counterpart to Winston Shakespeare is 20-year-old Jonathan Plumber, who moved from the Caribbean to California to live with Terry McMillan after the pair met in Jamaica.
Some reviewers seem to criticize this aspect, while others point out that the novel's autobiographical nature helped to offset its weak and unimaginative story. Patricia Smith, reviewer for the Boston Globe remarked, "Reading "Groove" without this [autobiographical] knowledge is like skipping through a field of wildflowers and broken glass - it's fun, but you've just got to scream "ouch" once in awhile (10)."
Genre Six: "African-American/Feminist Perspective"
Richard Bernstein for the New York Times remarked on McMillan, summarizing her strengths as an African-American Writer. Noting her abilities as both a novelist and script-writer, Bernstein's comparison between McMillan movies and other Black films reminds us of the media's tendency to concentrate on racial stereotypes. "Ms. McMillan's previous book, the wildly successful "Waiting to Exhale," made into a movie, was warmly welcomed as an expression of middle-class black female identity. The 'hood?the world depicted by "Clockers," "Menace 2 Society" or Tupac Shakur?was only part of the larger black pageant, Ms. McMillan was reminding us. The larger picture also included middle-class black women with educations, careers and sensibilities who wage a special kind of struggle over the missing ingredients of the affluent life (1)." While media tends to concentrate its focus on poverty and violence within the African-American culture, McMillan's stories attempt to debase this pigeonholing.
The fact that McMillan is an African-American female writer lends itself to the ways in which she creates her characters. Stella is an assertive, responsible career-minded woman, capable of providing for herself and her family while juggling her roles as employee, mother, and lover. McMillan makes this point very clear in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" through the inclusion of Stella's sister Angela?her domestic and vulnerable antithesis. Angela's nagging and criticism throughout the book spring from the differences between the two characters. Angela is reasonable, conservative and married. Stella drops everything to pursue love with a man half her age. It is much more common to find the reverse occurring. In our society, it is the men who usually seek younger mates. Most readers find McMillan's disregard for preconceived notions refreshing in a world where stereotypes are all too prevalent. Sarah Ferguson for the New York Times sums up this idea, "Terry McMillan's first novel since her 1992 best seller, "Waiting to Exhale," is a guilty-pleasure sex-and-shopping fantasy of the first order, sprinkled with asides on rap music and feminine hygiene and featuring a message as uncomplicated as a glass of fresh-squeezed papaya juice: If aging men can rev their engines with pretty young trophy wives, why can't middle-aged women treat themselves to dreamy, dishy boy toys (6)?"
The eclectic nature of McMillan's 1996 novel tells us a number of things about best-selling fiction. Though "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" may be lacking in literary merit or stylistic richness, the reader will undoubtedly identify with the story in some way. The novel appeals to the romantic, the traveler, the female, and the moviegoer alike. Readers who share a similar socio-economic standing are likely to identify with the conflict between making money and pursuing happiness. Single mothers will identify with the conflict between work and family. Those who do not find common ground with Stella the character, can escape into her world as they read. If nothing else, one may at least appreciate the fact that the story is light-hearted and entertaining. Since most consumers buy books for enjoyment purposes, it is likely that this is the quality most responsible for the success of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back."
Bernstein, Richard "Black, Affluent and Looking for More" The New York Times, May 15, 1996, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final Correction Appended, Section C; Page 17; Column 1; Cultural Desk, 978 words.
Byrge, Duance "MOVIE REVIEW; 'Stella Got Her Groove'" BPI Entertainment News Wire, August 10, 1998, Monday, 711 words.
Carr, Jay "'Stella' moves to an easy groove" The Boston Globe, August 14, 1998, Friday, City Edition Correction Appended, ARTS & FILM; Pg. C1, 758 words.
Covert, Colin Star "What planet is 'Stella' grooving on, anyway?" Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 14, 1998, Metro Edition, Pg. 1E, 750 words.
Donahue, Deirdre "McMillan slips into a vivid, one-note 'Groove'" USA TODAY, April 29, 1996, Monday, FINAL EDITION, LIFE; Pg. 1D, 364 words.
Ferguson, Sarah "Books in Brief: FICTION" The New York Times, June 2, 1996, Sunday, Late Edition - Final, Section 7; Page 21; Column 1; Book Review Desk, 278 words.
George, Preethy "Waiting to Exhale" UVA Best Sellers Database
Holden, Stephen "He Likes Video Games? Nobody's Perfect" The New York Times, August 14, 1998, Friday, Late Edition - Final, Section E; Part 1; Page 9; Column 1; Movies, Performing Arts/Weekend Desk, 732 words,.
Jones, Steve "Themes of love, liberation keep soundtrack in the 'Groove'" USA TODAY, August 20, 1998, Thursday, FINAL EDITION, LIFE; Pg. 1D, 216 words.
Smith, Patricia "McMillan's Jamaican confection" The Boston Globe, April 28, 1996, Sunday, City Edition, BOOKS; Pg. 67, 1183 words.
The Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 1996, Thursday, FEATURES; BOOKS; BESTSELLING FICTION; Pg. 18, 1649 words.
Wilner, Norman "Love story is all looks, no substance" The Toronto Star, September 11, 1998, Friday, FINAL EDITION, ENTERTAINMENT; Pg. C5, 614 words.