Terry McMillan revisits 'Exhale' quartet

Back in 1992, before those “Sex and the City” fashionistas prompted everybody to order Cosmos and daydream about a closet full of Manolos, a different, straight-talking quartet of friends captured female imaginations.

Terry McMillan’s breakthrough novel “Waiting to Exhale,” about women in Phoenix negotiating variations of romantic turmoil, broke the color barrier to dominate the best-seller lists and inspired a Forest Whitaker film.

It also made guys look like dogs, which was just the icing on the cake for its amused fans.

Now, after three other novels and a whole lotta personal revelations on “Oprah,” McMillan has returned to Savannah, Gloria, Bernadine and Robin as they suffer through various midlife crises, some but not all related to the opposite sex (looming menopause, pill and porn addiction, money and job issues, family chaos and sudden death among them).

Their troubles are more pressing, more serious than before, and for obvious reasons:

The friends are older, and there is less time left to get things right.

They all thought by fiftysomething they’d be settled, happy, content. Instead, they’re still not exhaling comfortably.

“Getting to Happy” is pretty much required reading for anyone who cared about “Waiting to Exhale,” although it has problems. Some of the dialogue is stilted and preachy, and sometimes the protagonists are more defined by their problems (say, Robin’s shopaholic tendencies) than actual traits. Some of the issues are dispatched too easily; McMillan’s characters all have unending supplies of money, so the financial crises aren’t terribly daunting.

Still, the male characters are slightly more fleshed out (or at least less predictably unreliable), and the girlfriends’ arguments about life are a blast.

And there’s undeniable entertainment in some of the empowering moments, such as when a grieving Gloria finally finds solace in pampering a customer in need, or when Savannah, who grew up in a Pittsburgh ghetto, sits by the Seine in Paris and contemplates just how far she has come.

“I like my life,” she marvels. “I’m free.”

Sometimes, McMillan writes, “you luck up and sometimes your luck runs out.”

Overall, we’re pretty lucky that she returned to these old friends.