A quartet still waiting to exhale

"GETTING TO HAPPY." By Terry McMillan. Viking. 375 pages. $27.95.

Back in 1992, before those "Sex and the City" fashionistas made everybody dream about a closetful of Manolos, a different, straight-talking quartet of friends captured female imaginations. Terry McMillan's breakthrough novel "Waiting to Exhale," about women negotiating romantic turmoil, broke the color barrier to dominate best-seller lists and inspire a 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 personal revelations on "Oprah," McMillan has returned to Savannah, Gloria, Bernadine and Robin as they suffer midlife crises, not all related to the opposite sex (looming menopause, addiction, jobs, family chaos and death among them).

Their troubles are more pressing than before. The friends are older, and there is less time left to get things right. They all thought by 50something they'd be settled and happy. Instead, they're still not exhaling comfortably.

"Getting to Happy" may be required reading for anyone who cared about "Exhale," although it has problems. Some dialogue is stilted and preachy, and sometimes the protagonists are more defined by problems than traits. Some issues are dispatched too easily; McMillan's characters have unending supplies of money, so the financial crises aren't terribly daunting.

Still, the male characters are more fleshed out and the girlfriends' arguments on life are a blast. And there's entertainment in some empowering moments, such as when Savannah, from an inner city, sits in Paris and contemplates how far she has come.

Sometimes, McMillan writes, "you luck up and sometimes your luck runs out." Overall, we're pretty lucky that she returned to these old friends.