MARCH 31, 2020
TERRY MCMILLAN’S READERS will flock to her newest work, It’s Not All Downhill From Here, expecting her signature style of contemporary storytelling with a heap of realism only she can deliver. We know the minute we pick up one of her novels that there’s going to be some major truth-telling about the inner workings of black women forging through challenges. In her latest offering, from the very first page when we meet Loretha Curry, we know something is about to happen to her idyllic life. She is married to Carl, who she loves more than Twizzlers. She has a dog named B. B. King that she takes to the park while she reads her AARP newsletter. She’s worried about the surprise Carl is planning for her 69th birthday. A party, perhaps — something she isn’t in the mood for because she feels old and is not a good dancer. She’s a certified senior citizen and has seen it all. Of course, she hasn’t seen it all. There’s much more to come.
We soon understand why Loretha — who goes by Lo — is actually dreading the celebration. One particular reason is because last year her sister, Odessa, and her one and only daughter, Jalecia, were no-shows. Her sister is jealous of Lo’s perceived perfect world. After all, Lo is married to a great guy and owns her own business. She makes everything look easy. Running her business, owning multiple properties in California, and having a pool in her Pasadena backyard all seem ostentatious compared to Odessa, who is soon to be homeless. But Lo’s perfect world has its glitches. Her daughter Jalecia is an alcoholic and a fan of designer drugs. Plus, a while back, Lo had to fire Jalecia from her beauty supply store for stealing.
Stealing from your own mother is a crime of the highest order according to Lo, and yet she still thinks about her daughter every single day. She worries endlessly about her. When the phone rings, her first thought begins with: Jalecia is in trouble. Her grown daughter will need to be bailed out of jail or picked up from a shelter. This foreboding puts a weight on Lo’s heart and mind, making it difficult to be happy and grateful for anything, let alone a party. It’s hard to celebrate while waiting for the axe to fall. When you’re worried about your child, regardless of her age, a birthday party feels frivolous and selfish.
At least her BFFs will be there for whatever Carl is planning. Lo has been blessed with a group of girlfriends that have stood the test of time. As with most good Terry McMillan tales, we know her best friends will offer solace in the way of humor and in having problems of their own to tackle. Luckily, all five women live within a bus ride to Las Vegas, where they get together regularly for food and conversation. They show up armed with a list of updates: Sadie is having an affair with her pastor; Korynthia has a son who is in trouble with the law; Poochie is struggling with health issues; and Lucky is extremely overweight and in a dead-end marriage. The list of woes for these ladies grows as the pages turn. Getting older doesn’t get easier. Their friendships are tested by stepping on toes and crossing lanes. Sadie takes a good deal of scorn and teasing for sleeping with her married minister. The friends have labeled her the adulteress in a no-harm-no-foul kind of way and still they always come together with laughter and lighthearted jokes that makes everything better.
We watch Lo try to save each of them from making mistakes and setting themselves up for heartbreak. She’s the leader of the band. As the leader, it’s her duty to make sure that Sadie knows nothing will come of her relationship with the married minister; that Korynthia can’t go back and change her grown son, nor save him; and that Poochie has been lonely and older than the rest of the gang since their inception and she’d be wise to find some joy while she still can.
Our Lo is constantly aware of her pessimistic side, something she battles for the good of her friends and family. If she’s not there to make everyone see reason, those she love will suffer. As her primary concern, she has to find her daughter and get her a caring doctor for a newly diagnosed depression. Lo soon learns trying to help someone who doesn’t want help is an uphill battle. As a matter of fact, every situation in It’s Not All Downhill From Here, is actually uphill. We go along for the ride with Lo as she pushes, prods, and pedals slowly to gradual solutions for everyone. It’s easier for her to focus on other people’s problems so as not to see the huge hole in her own backyard where tragedy has struck.
Her next set of difficulties to solve comes as her husband Carl’s newly discovered son becomes a fixture in her home — even if invited. He’s a nice young man who wants to turn over a brand-new leaf by moving to Los Angeles and going back to school. It’s the girlfriends who are worried now. Who is this stranger, and why has he set his sights on Lo? Isn’t there somewhere else he can go? Is he really Carl’s son? His name is Kwame, and he looks just like Carl. Good enough for Lo. Plus, she doesn’t mind having the company, even if it means he moves his ailing mother into the house too.
The book’s chapters are short and brisk. With all the family and friends oscillating on the pages, it might be hard to keep up as to which story is going to leap out as the frontrunner. But we know there is more to come and can only wait for the next hundred or so pages with mounting dread to find out what could possibly surpass the last sad announcement during one of their dinner gatherings. Good news doesn’t come fast enough. But when it comes, it feels like the last supper. We’re finally at the turning point where we relish going downhill — and swiftly. The end is near and Lo has found help for her daughter, doctors willing to facilitate a plan for rehabilitation. She’s come full circle with her sister. She’s also mended fences with a few more family members.
When Jalecia asks her mother what she’s learned in her 69 years of living, Lo doesn’t know how to respond at first:
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but there’s no sense beating myself up about it. I’ve learned from some of them, but maybe not enough of them. But that’s okay. There’s also a reason why it’s called the past. I have learned that it’s not too late to start taking better care of myself. I am grateful for having you and Jackson, and for having good friends. I don’t have a whole lot of regrets because I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do the way I wanted to do it.
To know that Loretha Curry has come full circle with no regrets makes us all a bit more grateful for our own ups and downs. There’s a reunion of sisterhood that feels well deserved. There are relationships born and love found. “Which is why I’m doing everything I can to slide into home so I leave gold dust behind me,” Lo says at the end. The road to her gratitude was long and hard fought.