How Stella Got Her Groove Back

Well, my house is clean, a house sitter is installed, and I am in Spain. I have only been here 24 hours so I am not going to reach a verdict just yet but it is a nice resort, classy, well equipped, quiet (so far), free from riff-raff and screaming kids. I am one of the younger people here, it is mostly retirement age couples, some of the older ladies have leathery tans and are dripping in gold jewellery, I could see how that could be me when I am 70, assuming my career continues well. I am answering work emails because that is where the money comes from. Here’s the pool that I am eating lunch next to. The old chap at the next table has just put on a jumper.

  

The sun and the resort staff are not quite as blisteringly hot as in Jordan and I haven’t fallen in love yet but there is still plenty of time. I have done a tiny bit of swimming and am working on my tan. I have discovered that the sun falls on my balcony in the late afternoon and that it is possible to sunbathe there in the nude if you strategically arrange towels over the railing and secure them with stitch markers that you handily brought along with your knitting supplies.

Anyway, the reason I’m blogging already is because I just finished a book that I have been meaning to get around to, and wanted to tell you about. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, by Terry McMillan, 1996, is about an African- American woman from California who goes to Jamaica and falls in love with a guy half her age. In fact he is 20 and she is 42.

Reasons why this is an acclaimed book. It is smoothly written, it is not trying to be Great Literature but none of it jars. It is thoughtful, uses words carefully, proceeds with an easy flow. Also it is incredibly non-judgemental. Sure, Stella constantly questions herself: what is she doing with this boy, why does he want her, is it just for money and a green card. Some of the other characters have misgivings as well, like Stella’s sister. But the author does not share these misgivings and nor does Winston, Stella ‘s young lover. It would have been so easy to moralise about Stella and make this a cautionary tale; why is she being so rash, how naive of her to think that he’s not using her, how unwise of her to introduce 20 year old Winston to her 12 year old son. The author does not take any of these routes. Winston is sincere, he doesn’t ask for money, he wins Stella’s confidence and when he proposes to her, during a visit to California, she accepts and the reader is expected to be happy about it. It was refreshing. Terry McMillan and her character Stella aren’t stupid but they also are not closed to love across big age gaps and in unexpected places.

Points of note. This is a very Nineties book. The characters are thrilled to be living in the 1990s, it feels like a new era, which I guess it was. The fashions are hilarious – Stella goes to meet Winston at the airport in a pink t shirt over which she wears a man’s jacket in mint green. I can see it now. 10 years later Stella would have looked at those photos and cringed. People do 1990s things like get excited about portable CD players, do you remember those? They were huge, prone to breaking and you had to carry CDs around with you.

Things I didn’t like so much. If I knew Stella, I don’t think we would be friends. She has horrible taste. She listens to chart music and never wonders if there’s anything else. She runs out and buys the soundtracks to popular films. She never picks up a book. She thinks in terms of brands, they define her whole life. Winston is either real or he is Memorex. He has Easy-Bake lips. She is pretty intellectually bankrupt and is more entrenched in the 1980s than she realises. She’s like a pleasant but banal workmate. Probably very good at her job (she’s a financial analyst). She’s supposed to be creative and is interested enough in furniture design to have designed a couple of pieces, and she makes one or two remarks about functional sculpture but in the end she doesn’t betray any technical knowledge or show any real interest in the arts beyond her own attempts to make things, here and there. If you asked her who her favourite sculptors are, and why, she would be stumped, so it’s lucky that nobody asks her.

Mainly, though, the main reason I didn’t like her, might ultimately be because I’m European and she’s American and has a disturbed, self-hating and paranoid relationship with her own body, especially her mouth and sexual organs, of a type that I think is particular to that country. In general, I like Americans, but some of them are wearing the psychological equivalent of a burqa and it’s hard to relate to. Allow me to elaborate.

  • She thinks women’s sexual organs, including her own, are disgusting. She really has some very serious problems in this regard, but evidently the author doesn’t agree, as she is trying to depict Stella as a nice, normal woman, and this is part of how she goes about it. Stella says frankly that she can’t understand how men can bear to give women oral sex – which makes me think that she must be absolutely awful at sex. She thinks women’s toilets smell like fish – Stella, get to a therapist, you are sick and you hate yourself. She carries ‘feminine wipes’ everywhere she goes, for fear that her stinking pussy will start stinking. I wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole, you can’t have sex with someone as disturbed as that.
  • She is constantly douching herself. Newsflash: nobody outside the U.S. does this. Why would you want to squirt barrels of commercially prepared chemicals up yourself? Do you want an infection? But wait, it’s so she can smell ‘fresh’. Fucking weirdo. You know what smells fresh? Vaginas, they are self cleaning. Your know what yours smells like? A cheap perfume counter. A perfume counter that’s going to have a yeast infection in about five minutes. Your pussy should smell like healthy woman, not like Procter & Gamble.
  • Needless to say, she’s also horrified by women’s armpit hair – as a European I am wearing mine now, hair grows there because it is supposed to. I keep it short, it’s not down to my knees, but it is definitely there, where Nature intended. Get over it already. Life is too short for being freaked out that women grow hair under their arms.
  • She considers taking commercially prepared enemas on holiday with her in case she can’t shit because of excitement and “foreign” food. Hello, you are going to Jamaica, to a resort. Are you serious? What is it you think people are eating? And will you please stop squirting medicated liquids up yourself?
  • It goes on and on. Not surprisingly, since she hates every other orifice, she also thinks her mouth is a festering cesspit of evil and when Winston comes to stay she does this mysterious night time ritual involving fruit because she thinks she’ll wake up with a clean palate. Stella, all you are doing is going to bed with a mouth full of sugar and anyway what would be wrong with waking up and brushing your teeth? But no. Don’t relax and do something normal when you could tense up and do something paranoid and nonsensical.
  • Blah blah blah. This isn’t supposed to be a book about a sick, disturbed, paranoid woman who hates her body, it’s supposed to be about a nice, normal woman who you can relate to. I didn’t like her, and she doesn’t like herself. And 20 year old Winston is not going to be able to help her, she’s 42, she’ll be dragging that suitcase of shame, disgust and self-loathing around for the rest of her life.
  • Just one last thing. So nice, normal Stella fals in love with nice, normal Winston who is conventionally attractive. But Stella is obsessed with how hairy he is – apparently this is a good thing? Strange, from a woman who’s so repulsed by her own body hair. She’s constantly reflecting on his hairy arms and legs. This wasn’t doing it for me at all. It made him sound like a more than averagely attractive gorilla.

Meh. I liked this novel more than it may seem. I liked the story, the writing, the themes it addresses, the non-judgemental tone. I just didn’t actually like Stella. I thought she was intellectually comatose, paranoid and thoroughly brainwashed. But there you go. You can’t have everything in life. 1 Books point.

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