Who Asked You?

By Terry McMillan

Viking. 400 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Karen E. Quinones Miller

Betty Jean is not young and beautiful. She's not highly educated. She doesn't have a glamorous career. And she's not married to a fabulously handsome and wealthy man.

In short, she hardly resembles any of the protagonists in Terry McMillan's blockbuster novels - Waiting to Exhale, Disappearing Acts, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. But she does share one thing with them: Betty Jean is so real that everyone who reads about her knows someone just like her. And though you may not want to be her, you want to see her succeed.

Not many authors can create characters so vivid that readers can't help but sympathize with them. Even fewer can actually create a character with whom readers can empathize. Fortunately for us, McMillan is one of those few.

There's not a lot of drama or glamour in Who Asked You?, and the book starts off a little slowly. Then again, so does life. McMillan has done an outstanding job of creating characters to whom everyone can relate, dealing with issues with which everyone is familiar. Because of that, Who Asked You? is a book that makes you feel you are witnessing a friend's life and wishing for her the best outcome.

Betty Jean Butler is a middle-age hotel worker struggling to pay her bills while also dealing with a husband suffering from dementia and dying from cancer. Though she's the mother of three grown children, she gets more grief than support from them.

Her daughter, Trinetta, has three children by three different men and is strung-out on crack. Even after losing custody of her little girl due to negligence, she's still an irresponsible mom.

Betty Jean's youngest son, Dexter, is in prison for a crime he swears he didn't commit. He's eligible for parole and is constantly writing his mother begging for money and telling her about his extravagant plans for his life once he's released - all of which Betty Jean knows are totally unattainable.

Her oldest son, Quentin, is a successful chiropractor and serial husband, currently working on his fifth wife. Though he claims to love his mother, he doesn't bother to spend any time with her - or spend any money on her - to prove that love. In fact, he doesn't want anyone who reminds him of his African American heritage.

But if she doesn't get support from her children, she certainly gets it from her two sisters, though not the kind she needs.

Her younger sister, Venetia, is a Bible-quoting fanatic. She firmly believes that all of Betty Jean's problems would be resolved if she would just attend church every Sunday. Married to a wealthy but absent husband, Venetia strives to be compassionate, but can't really understand other people's problems because she's too busy denying her own.

Her older sister, Arlene, on the other hand, doesn't give a hoot about compassion. She's bossy, controlling, overly critical, and always has something to say. In her opinion - and her opinion is the only one that counts - if Betty Jean would just let her run her life, everything would be straightened out quickly. But while Arlene swears she knows what's best for everyone else, she's blind to the fact that her overbearing ways are suffocating her own adult son.

When Trinetta drops off her children for a few hours, then skips town with a boyfriend, Betty Jean is faced with trying to take care of two needy little boys while working full time.

Arlene weighs in quickly: Betty Jean should put the kids in foster care, put her husband in a nursing home, and move on with her life.

Venetia believes that this is Betty Jean's chance for a do-over. Since Trinetta, Dexter, and Quentin all turned out to be disappointments, she feels God is giving Betty Jean an opportunity to prove she really can be a good mother.

Then life finally rips off Venetia's and Arlene's blindfolds, forcing them to deal with the problems in their own households. Will the sisters learn that by leaning on each other, they can all grow strong enough to stand alone?

This is not a fairy tale - there's no Prince Charming, no Fairy Godmother, and no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Instead, there is a loving husband who was once a rock, but is now a burden; sisters and friends who say they are trying to help, but give more grief than support; and a seemingly never-ending struggle to make ends meet. But, in writing this book, Terry McMillan reminds us that no matter what, there's always the possibility of a Happily Ever After.