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Originally published Friday, September 20, 2013 at 4:04 AM

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‘Who Asked You?’: a tough, tender L.A. mom

Terry McMillan’s new novel, “Who Asked You?,” is a gritty, engagingly chatty portrait of a mother and her family in an inner-city, working-class L.A. neighborhood, struggling with good intentions against daunting odds. McMillan appears Sept. 23 at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Terry McMillan

The author of “Who Asked You?” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday in the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).

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Betty Jean Butler knows all too well that you can choose your pals but you can’t choose your family — and that though the sorrows might seem to outweigh the joys, you dearly need both friends and kin.

In Terry McMillan’s gritty, engagingly chatty “Who Asked You?” (Viking, 383 pp., $27.95), Betty Jean, aka BJ, is the most levelheaded voice in a novel filled with first-person points of view. Chapters alternate from the charming to the cringe-inducing thoughts of a long list of characters, including BJ’s three grown children. There’s Trinetta, who, as BJ tells it, “seems to have a hard time saying no to drugs and lowlife men”; Dexter, “another smart one who fell in love with stupidity,” serving time for carjacking; and Quentin, a pompous chiropractor with a long string of white ex-wives who lives in Oregon, “which has made it very easy for him to forget he’s black.”

Also in the mix are sassy Nurse Kim, who takes care of BJ’s devoted husband of 37 years, Lee David, suffering from Alzheimer’s; BJ’s best friend and neighbor, Tammy, who happens to be white and whose honest, easy repartee with BJ is one of the novel’s delights; and BJ’s sisters — lonely stay-at-home mom Venetia and domineering single mom Arlene.

“Who Asked You?” spans the time between 9/11 and President Obama’s first inauguration. It’s set in inner-city L.A., in a working-class neighborhood on the rebound from the ravages of drug and gang violence in the ’90s. It begins with Trinetta dropping off her two young sons, Ricky and Luther, with BJ and taking off for Atlanta, intending to get clean and do right by her boys.

The novel is dedicated to “mothers, who do the best they can.” BJ does, wearily but lovingly stepping up to the challenge of rearing Ricky and Luther, and blossoming into a new phase of her life.

McMillan (“Waiting to Exhale”) excels at depicting small, tender moments of family dynamics: BJ, though often exasperated by her sisters, acknowledging that she likes it when Venetia calls her Betty Bean. Luther, heartbreakingly self-aware of his mother’s problems with substance abuse, curling up with his little brother and grandpa to watch “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and blurting out answers to the trivia questions. BJ summing up her long marriage: “It wasn’t that Hollywood kind of love: full of flames, hurricanes, or ten-foot waves. It was smooth and steady ... ”

The author also creates a realistic portrait of the life of a blue-collar family. BJ, a hotel room-service attendant, ironically has never stayed in a hotel: “I don’t know what it feels like to be waited on. I wonder what it feels like to call room service. I wonder what it feels like to come back and your room is clean. Bed made. Fresh towels in the bathroom.”

Early in the novel BJ laments, “I wish Lee David and I could have been a little more like the Cosbys.” But then “Who Asked You?” wouldn’t be nearly as soulful.

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a Seattle Times desk editor.

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