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It’s Not All Downhill From Here [Book Review]

Summary

It’s Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan is about a year in the life of Loretha, a woman in her 60s, and her circle of friends. Moving through life they experience diverse trials and tribulations some of which revolve around them being at that particular stage in life. It immediately reminded me of Waiting to Exhale but while these women are also imperfect, they feel a bit more self-aware and somewhat settled in their lives. The friend group is also slightly larger and the story is set in Pasadena, California rather than Arizona.

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Show Notes

By this point, I’ve watched Waiting to Exhale a million times and also read the book. Yet, most of Terry McMillan’s books to movie projects have left me preferring the films. Thus I was a little apprehensive about starting It’s Not All Downhill From Here. But I’m happy that I went against my instincts and gave the book a shot.

Let me start by saying that I’m a fan of Waiting to Exhale, Sex and the City, and Set It Off. I love movies and tv shows that center on a tight female group of friends. To be clear, not frenemies where there is constant shadiness and in-fighting but rather genuine solid friendships.

It’s cool when you have books or movies that follow one main character when there is a lot of character development. But with more lightweight stories, I enjoy the dynamic of a group comprised of different personalities. Not necessarily family where they must be around and spend time together (though I did like the Soul Food series). But rather a group of friends who choose to be around each other and go through life together.

You can have family members that you love to spend time with but that dynamic seems a little bit different compared to the family that you make for yourself. Your family is a group that you’re born into and don’t have a say in who else is a part of the group by default. But your friends are a group of people that you gather along the way and choose to put together. That’s not to say that one is better than the other but because of how the two differ in coming together, the dynamic is different.

In the case of Loretha and her friends, I really liked their crew. I’m getting to a place and age in life where a lot of the tv shows and movies that I watched in the past or watch now resonate differently because I’m at a similar age to the characters. Yet, while this group consists of women who are older than me, there was still a lot that I related to and think most people would as well. The reason is that the characters are interesting and relatable.

That made me think a bit. Aside from maybe Frankie and Grace over the last few years and Golden Girls back in the 1980s, what other shows have focused on older women? I liked Something’s Got To Give and Calendar Girls was a cool movie too. Yet, despite their success, those projects featuring older White women are few and far between. But I couldn’t even think of a similar tv show or movie that focuses on older Black women.

If I’m not mistaken, I read somewhere that women are the primary buyers and readers of books. And I would assume that they also make up a sizeable portion of moviegoers and tv watchers. Yet, if you look at mainstream media, the stories about young women are very repetitive but actresses have increasingly limited character options as they age and that’s if they don’t simply disappear.

Yet, male actors can be leading men until they don’t just have one foot in the grave but look like they’ve spent some time in one. Their stories remain varied and interesting. And sometimes even regardless of what they look like, they’re still presented as being sexy and attractive. But that tends to end with women at a certain age or at least there’s an implication that it should. I like that It’s Not All Downhill From Here pushes aside that notion.

Sure, some people just let themselves go and lead boring lives but that doesn’t apply to every older person. I admire and make a note of both older men and women who take care of themselves and remain passionate about life. I would like to get old one day and welcome examples of older people who are living life as I might like to in the future.

Now Loretha and her friends weigh a bit more than they used to and they’re in different places in their lives. But I liked that they’re still fun and interesting. And also for the most part, because they’re older, they’re more financially secure.

I read It’s Not All Downhill From Here a bit after the holidays and my grandmother passed away several years ago around Thanksgiving. I find myself missing her throughout the year but especially around the holidays. The characters are very different from my grandmother but they led to me thinking about and really missing her. Especially knowing that she had what I refer to as her old lady circle of friends. They would hang out and do their own thing, spending visiting each other’s homes which I thought was sweet.

I enjoyed the friendship between Loretha and her circle of friends. But it was also nice to read about the sweet relationship between her and her husband of 20-plus years. Things are great in those areas of her life but being imperfect, she’s falling short in some areas. One major issue is that she isn’t taking proper care of her health which is necessary to ensure that she can continue living a comfortable and healthy life. But I felt that just made her feel more real and relatable as a character.

And she’s also not a stereotypical old biddy. Think of The Golden Girls and how those older ladies were still out here carrying on and having a good time. But mainstream American culture is very youth-driven so often people, especially women, are treated as though they have an expiration date. Though due to economic conditions, the cut-off age seems to be shifting a bit older.

In the past, it seems people were considered past their prime around or after 30. Mostly because many were getting married, having kids, and otherwise settling down around that age. But those life milestones are shifting to later in life as people are still figuring themselves out in their 30s and sometimes even into their 40s. The timeline for being attractive and having an active social life has begun to expand a bit.

It’s Not All Downhill From Here is interesting in that, number one, it focuses on older women. But here it is that you have this group of Black women who aren’t rich but they’re also not poor either. Actually, for the most part, they’re financially comfortable. And for the ones who are not, it’s mostly because of poor financial decisions on their part or being irresponsible with money.

The characters aren’t stereotypical. Sure they’re Black women but they’re not poor and struggling. And they also don’t have crazy dysfunctional relationships. Addiction is touched on but not in the sense of any of them personally struggling with a crack addiction. They don’t have boyfriends or husbands that are in and out of jail or fighting over child support. I’m not saying that those things don’t happen in real life but it’s overrepresented in the stories that are told about Black people.

Instead of a bunch of cliches, this story shies away from the stereotypical things that are presented as being the norm for Black people. It’s not just the same rehashing of stereotypes. The women are older, they are Black, and they have imperfect lives. I don’t believe in respectability politics nor do I believe only perfect Black people should have their stories told. But most Black people are just minding their business and going about living regular lives. Few people live at the extremes so while we can certainly tell those stories, they need to be balanced with stories about regular Black people. Their imperfections make them feel realistic but I also like that they’re not living in dire circumstances.

You know, there are things here that I think you can find in each character that makes them relatable. Loretha has her shortcomings but is likable, as is, for the most part, her circle of friends. Though it did take me a minute to be able to tell the supporting characters apart. But once the story progressed and you got the backstory and current circumstances of each character, it became easier to differentiate between them. At that point, I was also able to figure out my favorites versus the ones that I didn’t like quite so much.

In addition to her circle of friends, there are also a few members of her family. Her mother was an absolutely comical character, just a sweet older lady living it up in her golden years. I even liked her storyline of having to move to an assisted living place after becoming unable to live on her own. She comes to love it and builds an active life all of her own. She has her circle of friends as well as an apartment which allows her to be safe while having her independence. This woman is 80-something years old with a more active and enjoyable life than a lot of people decades younger.

Because Loretha and her friends are in their 60s, their kids are grown with some even having children of their own. Because these types of stories tend to skew younger with characters in their 20s to maybe 40s, part of their lives tends to revolve around having and raising minor children. Sure, they have their share of problems for the parents to deal with but adult kids come with a different set of problems.

With minor children, issues typically revolve around school, activities, their first experiences, and their testing boundaries as they try to figure themselves out. But because the characters are older, their adult children’s issues are quite serious. Loretha has a son who is doing well and lives in Japan with his young family. Events take place and someone leaves Loretha’s life but it creates a situation where she is introduced to a young man who becomes like another son to her.

She also has a daughter, Janessa, who is struggling with alcoholism. Her daughter has a child of her own who is kind of floundering professionally but is in a stable and loving relationship. The granddaughter is a little bit of a dirty backpacker who is still trying to find her way. I liked the adult grandmother-granddaughter relationship where Loretha champions and encourages her granddaughter as she figures things out.

That relationship has a completely different type of energy in comparison to the relationship with Loretha’s daughter. She tries to be supportive of her daughter, but Janessa is less receptive to help or at least help from Loretha. One of her friends is also dealing with a similar situation with an adult child who is struggling with drug addiction.

It’s one thing when your kids are young or even teens and you’re trying to guide them to adulthood but they want to do their own thing. Responsible parents make an effort to keep them on the straight and narrow. Keeping them away from drugs, negative influences, and other distractions that might derail their lives before they truly get started. Trying to ensure that they focus on school while they might be more concerned with dating and socializing is difficult.

Imagine the added difficulty of your children being adults but still wanting to guide them around the obstacles and distractions that are in their way. Yet, because they’re adults, you can offer them support but there’s only so much that you can do. Although Janessa is messing up, Loretha can’t punish her or make her do right. Her only option is to be supportive and try to help Janessa through this difficult time in her life.

On a positive note, I loved the relationship between Loretha and her husband, Carl. This is her third marriage but it sounds like it’s the best one. She and her husband are both grown not just regarding their age as a number but also in their maturity. They’re not carrying on with the nonsense that they and others might have been entertaining in their youths. Being clear on what they both want and not playing any games allows the two of them to have a really beautiful relationship. And then they have a little dog with the cutest but most weirdly random name: “B.B. King”. The dog even becomes another cute character in the story.

In life, sometimes things might be going well one minute only to fall apart in the next moment. We sometimes take our health for granted. Our lives really. We might assume that we have all the time in the world. And that the youth, vigor, energy, etc. of our 20s and 30s will automatically continue even as we get older. But the reality is as a factor of aging, staying healthy and fit will require effort.

There are some things concerning health that are just beyond your control this includes hereditary illnesses, injuries from accidents, etc. But there are also health issues that we can avoid or mitigate risks by developing healthy lifestyle habits in our youth. The hope is to do all that you can while you’re young to safeguard against as many problems as possible later in life.

There are health issues both directly and indirectly experienced by Loretha, Carl, and her friends. It varies from person to person, which is true in real life as it depends on a person’s activity level and commitment to their health. Commitment and discipline vary from person to person and even within an individual based on stages in their life.

At this point in life, Loretha needs to lose some weight as she’s teetering on the brink of dealing with serious health issues as a result of her unhealthy lifestyle. It’s largely caused by being inactive and having poor eating habits. This is something with which a lot of people struggle.

Think of it like New Year’s resolutions where people tell themselves they’re going to get healthy in the new year. They plan to start eating healthy in January. But they decide it’s ok in the meantime to eat, drink, and be merry because it’s the holidays.

Just a few more months of living unhealthy and then they’re going to make a big change. But after New Year’s they either unapologetically continue with the same old habits or allow their plans to gradually fall by the wayside. Loretha falls into that camp as she uses things happening in life as an excuse to not buckle down and get healthy.

It’s fine to have health goals but as we see with Loretha some people struggle because they try to get healthy for a specific moment. For example, they might focus on hitting a specific weight loss goal rather than focusing on adopting long-term changes to their lifestyle. When Loretha decides to try eating more healthy, she skips dessert while out at dinner and resists eating candy. But she later doubles back and eats not just what she said she wouldn’t but also in greater quantities. She also makes excuses and keeps delaying her commitment to being more consistently active.

And it’s not just her health but also other things in life. Loretha procrastinates on doing the things she wants, becoming the person she wants to be, and going after her goals. I think most of us are guilty of this in some form. It’s not just her but her friends as well. Some of them are also struggling with their weight but others are procrastinating about improving other areas of their lives. I appreciated that realness.

Reading It’s Not All Downhill From Here, I found myself getting frustrated with Loretha. She’s a fictional character but through the story became someone that I cared about. To read about her health declining and diabetes becoming a potential issue felt very real. Her unhealthy lifestyle and lack of activity were contributing to her blood pressure and cholesterol levels becoming an issue. With all of these problems looming, it was frustrating to read about her not taking action.

She’s supposed to be watching what she eats, exercising, and just trying to otherwise be healthy. But then she comes up with excuses as to why she can’t start today or why it needs to be put it off until tomorrow. The way it all came together just felt very human and realistic.

Overall, I like the way that everything came together. I enjoyed the dynamic between Loretha and her friends. And in part, because it’s the same author who penned Waiting to Exhale, it felt like the characters were different but this was also like the original crew but 30 years later. I like these friendship stories where women lean on, encourage, and otherwise support each other. While they might have begun as high school friends because of their history they’re now just as much family as the ones that they were individually born into.

This is a great story about their friendship but it also touches on topics that are quite important in general, but especially within the Black community. A major subject is health due to the main character having to live with diabetes. Her husband also has health issues and they’re slowing down but still want to live. It provides a very real discussion of someone struggling to make the changes that are now necessary to ensure they keep living and maintain their quality of life.

There’s also the discussion of mental health issues and addiction, two topics that are just beginning to be openly discussed. The reality is that people sometimes use these self-destructive habits as a way of self-medicating. Some of the characters are suffering from depression and other mental health issues that they might not even be willing to admit to themselves. Instead, they use alcohol and drugs to numb those feelings so they don’t have to deal with them. This becomes an obstacle to them truly seeking out getting the help that they need.

McMillan’s approach to these real and very relevant topics feels like the opening to a discussion rather than what might feel like a lecture in other hands. She manages to touch on the struggles faced by members of the Black community, really society in general. I appreciated that McMillan was able to touch on these various serious topics in a way that was still entertaining and approachable. You might read It’s Not All Downhill From Here and see something in the characters that makes you reflect on yourself, your friends, and your family. I know I did.

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