Loretha is about to turn sixty-eight, and she has a several things she loves: Twizzlers, her husband, her four best friends, ownership of two beauty stores, living in Pasadena (California), and BB King (her dog). Waaaay over birthday parties for old ladies, Loretha is angry to learn second-hand from her granddaughter that a surprise birthday party is in the works. But Carl, Loretha’s loving spouse of decades and third husband, has a different surprise, one that will delight Loretha. That is, until a secret he’s kept changes everything.
It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan was published in 2021. I’ve also listened to Who Asked You? (2013) and started reading I Almost Forgot About You (2016). However, McMillan’s most famous works came out in the 1990s, not only landing on bestseller lists, but made into successful movies. I haven’t read or seen those works (Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back), so I can’t compare. The works I do have experience with always include 3-5 best female friends who all have loads of spouse/family/health issues and are typically fifty or older. Let’s start with Loretha’s friends.
Lucky, Poochie, Sadie, Korynthia, and Loretha have been best friends since public school days (so, around fifty years). How do folks maintain friendships from their school days? Anyway, add in the mix Loretha’s daughter (a depressed alcoholic named Jalecia), her granddaughter (Cinnamon + boyfriend Jonas + twins), her son in Japan (Jackson + wife + twins), Loretha’s own twin (perpetually broke Odessa), and their aging mother in the nursing home. Those are just Loretha’s family members.
Each of Loretha’s friends have a spouse or lover or children and grandchildren to keep track of, too. It felt like we could do without two of Loretha’s friends — like Poochie, who doesn’t even live in Pasadena, and Lucky, who adds little to the plot. With the arrival of young Kwame, McMillan could have skipped Loretha’s son in Japan altogether. Even Loretha’s twin sister failed to provide much tension in the plot when other characters functioned the same way she did (Jalecia’s aunt Peggy, for example). Basically, too many people were doing the same “job” in the plot.
I did get sucked into It’s Not All Downhill from Here in the first few chapters. I loved the dynamic between Loretha and Carl, and McMillan gives some of her own middle-finger personality to Loretha, who, by the way, is the same age as the author. The writing was downright laugh-out-loud funny. But as the novel progressed, I found myself laughing less and wondering what else could go wrong in everyone’s lives. It really did go all downhill. But if Who Asked You? taught me anything, it’s that McMillan would end everything on a sweet note, even if those good vibes didn’t make sense . . . which I wasn’t totally looking forward to.
A big part of my later disinterest in the plot was how repetitive the characters could be, especially in Loretha’s first-person point of view. Her narration comes in plenty of “I” statements, making the novel sound more like a journal full of resolutions, requests for forgiveness, and statements of what she’s done wrong. McMillan’s characters are also appearance-focused and lack boundaries. I don’t know how many times Loretha’s friends demanded to know her medical status, especially after she is diagnosed with diabetes. What are you eating? How much did you exercise? Did you take your medication? When did you last check your levels? Did you schedule a blood test with your doctor? Loretha turns around and thinks exactly what her friends just demanded: I will eat better, I will exercise, I will take my medication, I will check my levels, I will follow up with my doctor. It’s like the plot folds over on itself and starts to drag because I read the same statements in slightly different ways.
Meanwhile, the five friends talk about who has lost weight, gained weight, needs to “drop a few,” all couched with statements about health concerns, which is a type of trolling. And there is so much of it in It’s Not All Downhill from Here. Dump on judgments about how people are dressed and if they have on make up, and it gets rather exhausting.
What a bummer! It’s Not All Downhill from Here even had some great themes: aging, elderly folks having sex, LGBTQ+ acceptance, and openly talking about mental health issues, which is still taboo in black America. But the muddy characters, concern trolling, and repetitive narrator wore me out in the end.