Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
"One thing I do know about men and kids is that they always come
back. They may be a day late and a dollar short, but they always come
Viola, A Day Late and A Dollar Short
When Viola Price returns home from the hospital after a near fatal asthma
attack, she comes to an important realization: she may not survive the next one.
While keeping her fears a secret from everyone but her best friend, Loretta,
Viola shapes a plan for bringing her familyon the verge of breaking apart
from numerous petty squabbles and insecuritiestogether as a supportive,
loving unit. Doing so will prove no easy task but one that Viola, who asserts
"it's my job to meddle," is more than equipped to tackle. Over the
course of the next few months, Viola records her observations and advice to each
of them. Meanwhile, Cecil and her four children struggle with the various roles
as parents, children, and individuals. Terry McMillan lets each Price speak out
in his or her own voice and, in so doing, opens a window onto their respective
strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears.
Lewis, the only son, carries what is, perhaps, the heaviest burden. Sexually
abused as a child and suffering from the early onset of arthritis, Lewiswhen
he's not in jailseeks solace in the bottle and the easy affections of women.
"Sometimes I wish I'da been born white," he laments. "Things
probably would'a been a helluva lot easier." But his alcohol-ravaged
health, the needs of his son, Jamil, and Viola's illness are on a collision
course that he'll need more than crossword puzzle skills and a martyr's attitude
As the youngest child, Janelle is not accustomed to figuring things out on
her own. "She always being led out to some pasture and don't know how she
got there," complains Viola. And so, when she stumbles upon her daughter,
Shanice, being sexually molested by her second husband, George, she reacts the
only way she knows how, "I should kill him. But I don't move." More
engaged with her elaborate holiday decorations than her family, Janelle is
shocked into virtual paralysis, unable to respond to the situation. She is then
confronted by the realization that she must do the one thing she has always
found a way to avoid: act on her own, without a man's guidance.
Second-born Charlotte's geographical distance from the rest of the Prices is
metaphorical for the wide moat of hostility that separates her from them. She
even refusescan't and won't are identical concepts in Charlotte's logicto
visit when Viola is first hospitalized. The deep and abiding anger that prevents
Charlotte from seeing Viola also threatens to permanently alienate her from her
siblings and destroy her marriage to her loving husband, Al. She's proud of the
fact that she has no confidantes: "I only tell people what I want them to
know," she boasts but, like her house, Charlotte might "look good on
the outside, but on the inside, its falling apart."
Paris is the quintessential eldest child and a source of both pride and envy
within the Price family. She has worked hard for her nice home, doting son, and
thriving career but, while her comfortable financial position allows her to help
Viola, it draws her less affluent siblings' resentment. And her "I believe
when you make a promise, you should keep it" philosophy neither offers nor
invites empathy for human weakness. Yet, Paris' own weaknesses grow
exponentially with her responsibilities and success. Her increasing dependence
on painkillers exaggerates her carefully cultivated emotional detachmentand
both are about to disrupt her facade of control.
Alternating and juxtaposing their stories, McMillan weaves together the
delicate threads of family that are constantly strained by sibling rivalry and
everyday strife but, fortified by Viola, are strong enough to endure the weight
of sexual abuse and substance addiction.
Lewis, Janelle, Charlotte, and Paris all have very definite opinions about
their siblings but few of them are positive. It is through Viola that they
discover a place where they can release the past and see one another and
themselves afresh. Viola also helps her beloved but estranged husband, Cecil,
become both the father that her children are going to need and a man willing to
shoulder the coming responsibilities of his new family. Viola knows one thing
about men and kids, "they always come back." And, certainly Cecil and
the Price children do unite, at last, but largely through their shared love and
respect for the indomitable, unforgettable Viola.
As Paris ultimately realizes the incalculable and priceless value of Viola's
love, she reflects, "our history, our lives together as a family, and after
looking at our mother and father, I think we . . . realize where we came from
and who we are."
- Of all the siblings, who had the toughest time growing up? Or did they all
start out with more or less the same advantages and disadvantages?
- Sexual abuse is a very harsh reality that both Lewis and Shanice suffered.
What do you think Janelle can do to prevent the experience from further
- Are there parallels between Janelle's relationship with George and
Brenda's relationship with Cecil?
- Lewis picks up lady friends easily and relies heavily upon them when he
gets into trouble. To what extent is this a result of his being brought up
amidst so many women?
- Viola and Charlotte share the same birthday, a coincidence that they
insist debunks the claims of astrology. Are their personalities completely
different or are there characteristics that they share?
- Paris has a very tolerant attitude about her son's sexual activity. Would
she have been as liberal about contraception and abortion if Dingus had been
- Viola doesn't have an affectionate or close relationship with either of
her sisters. How does this play into her hopes for her own children and
- Do you agree with Dr. Greene's assessment that Al was justified in hiding
the existence of his illegitimate son from Charlotte? Why or why not?
- Alcohol and drug addiction play a prominent role in the Price childrens'
problems. Could the family have done more to help Lewis face up to his
alcoholism and Paris, her Vicadin addiction?
- Would Charlotte have been able to address her anger if she hadn't won the
- Cecil claims to love Viola, even when he leaves her for Brenda. How
"real" is Cecil's love? How do you feel about Viola's supportive
attitude towards Cecil's relationship with Brenda?
- In light of the turmoil each of her children is still in at the time of
Viola's death, what do you think about the novel's title?
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