"Nothing But the Rent," by Sharon Mitchell. Dutton. 323 pages. $23.95.
With "Waiting to Exhale," Terry McMillan spawned a generation of look-alike books. Books about jiving black women and their not-as-jiving men, books about the tight webs of female friendship. Sharon Mitchell's "Nothing But the Rent" is the latest of the bunch, and while the familiarity of the setting and themes may prove a comfort to some, the prosaic nature of the storytelling most likely will not.
In "Nothing," Mitchell, a first-time novelist and practicing psychologist, gives us four getting-close-to-30-and-still-not-married alumnae from a Midwest college. There's Gayle, kind and capable, a Columbus, Ohio, bank manager who lives at home caring for her ailing mother. There's Monique, lovely to look at but caustic in conversation, who practices law in Cincinnati. There's big-hearted Roxanne, living with the roaches in Boston, devoting her life to others. And then there's Cynthia, a little overweight and a lot lonely, who lives in Tampa and falls victim to a self-destructive willingness to do almost anything to get a man.
The protagonists come together at the book's very start as reluctant bridesmaids in a mutual friend's wedding and share, among other things, dismay about the gown they've been asked wear. "It's made of some kind of acetate material, has puffed long sleeves, and a big bow across the butt," Monique informs us, using the not particularly elevated language that clops throughout the book.
"I just hope Angie appreciates all the sacrifice we're going to for her," Cynthia rejoins. "I mean, really, I sat at that stupid airport for two hours."
The reader never does get an inkling as to why the four women agree to attend Angie's wedding, but it rapidly becomes clear that this is just an unimportant detail; soon enough the wedding chapters close, the bride is dispensed with, and a long series of chapters unfold, each reporting on the tribulations of one character after another, in static sequence.
Except for the occasional phone call or tax time, the four rarely cross each other's paths. Gayle apprehensively circles a relationship with "the only black man Gayle had met at the bank who wasn't a security guard or janitor." Roxanne falls hard for the "most fabulous-looking man she had ever seen." Monique secretly bemoans breaking her engagement with Tyson, "the greatest thing since sliced bread." Cynthia makes a terrible mistake with a wealthy and attractive man.
Not until the book's final chapters do the characters reunite for a weekend at Cynthia's condominium, and here the pace of the story accelerates as a love-and-health crisis prompts the characters to reveal new secrets and fears. Nothing that happens next is very surprising, but Mitchell, who clearly loves her characters, charges their exchanges with such a sisterly warmth that I did find myself hoping for four happy endings. I hoped for more originality in language, structure and plot, but it -- occurred to me, as I was finishing "Nothing," that Mitchell has given us characters we lean toward caring about, and that, in itself, is an achievement.
Beth Kephart's nonfiction book, "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," will be published by Norton in June. She has published some 30 short stories and essays in the last five years.
Pub Date: 5/03/98