Its witty title represents the novel’s fresh, original, funny, yet touching idea and story. Who Asked You? (2013) by Terry McMillan is a novel that highlights the life of a middle-aged African-American woman named Betty Jean Butler who works as a room service at a hotel in Los Angeles. Sounds not interesting, huh? Wait a minute!
Although living in LA, Betty Jean is a working-class citizen and her life is far from glamorous lifestyle. She works days and nights to make a living because she’s the breadwinner of the family. She has 3 children whose lives are full with twists and turns. Trinetta, is a drug addict and has two children from two different men. Dexter, is in jail, alleged of car theft. And Quentin, has a college degree, but he has married and divorced 5 women. Now, he’s with his wife number 6. Because he has a more decent job and life among his two siblings, he always underestimates them, including his mother and father. Plus, he’s a racist (despite he’s black). On the other hand, Betty Jean’s husband, Lee David, has long suffered from Alzheimer and is not capable of doing anything except sleeping and watching TV. With so many problems that she needs to overcome, Betty Jean feels she has failed being a mother.
As if life were not difficult enough, Trinetta suddenly bursts into her door and leaves his two sons, Luther and Ricky, who are only 8 and 6 years old. Trinetta then takes off with his boyfriend, and is no longer known her whereabouts. Now, Betty Jean’s life is completely screwed up.
In addition to the chaos within her own family, Betty Jean also has a love-hate relationship with her two sisters, Arlene and Venetia. Because she is the only one who does not have a college degree, Arlene often despises Betty Jean. Venetia dedicates herself as a housewife, but unfortunately, her husband has been repeatedly cheating behind her back, and she pretends not to know. The relationship among the three of them often goes through a lot of arguments, fights, until they finally exhausted, they make up, and they repeat it again. The only relationship that can be well established by Betty Jean is with her female friend and neighbor, Tammy.
Although there are so many characters involved in this novel, in general, Who Asked You? tells the life of Betty Jean from 2001 to more than a decade later. Not only that, this book is unique because it is written using first person point of view of each character. So, in the first chapter, Betty Jean tells the story of how screwed up her life is through sarcasms she utters. They are sometimes ironic, make us laugh and weep at the same time. Then, in the second chapter, Tammy tells about her life and her friendship with Betty Jean. Alternately, this pattern is repeatedly used from one chapter to another. Each character has their own narratives, including Arlene, Venetia, Trinetta, Dexter, Quentin, Luther, Ricky, and other supporting characters.
However, the readers will not be confused by the turnover of the narratives because each character has their own ‘voice’. For example, Betty Jean’s narrative style is witty and full of swear words (yeah, she’s that cool). Although she has got a complicated life, Betty Jean tries to go through it and sorts things out. On the other hand, Trinetta’s narrative is full of slang, similar to Luther’s. Venetia’s calm narrative shows that she is a devoted Christian. Quentin’s narrative is more arrogant than the others.
Betty Jean’s life is full of ups and downs, and it sometimes makes the readers want to pity her, but Betty Jean at the same time is a character that inspires us all. When reading it, we know that, “Well, she will get over with it.” Betty Jean is a grandmother figure that we have been longing for, the kind of loving grandma who will greet us home with her delicious cooking.
One of life lessons that can be drawn from this novel is, well, in your life you need to keep going, no matter how sh*tty life can be. We need to sincerely care for the ones we love. We have to willingly accept our family, no matter how messed up their lives are, no matter how deeply they have hurt us. Its writing style that changes the first person POV from one character to another makes us realize that every one of us has our own problems, past, and experiences that create us the way we are right now. And we do not have the rights to judge.
“So one person is right, but other person might be right, too.”
Who Asked You?
Author: Terry McMillan
Pages: 383 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books