A Shakeup for Stella

updated 07/11/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/2005 01:00AM

In Terry McMillan's sixth novel, The Interruption of Everything, her 44-year-old heroine, Marilyn Grimes, gets whacked by midlife chaos: Not just an empty nest and a body heading into menopause, but a husband who's burned out on marriage and flirting with an affair.

McMillan can relate: At 53, she's in the middle of her own seismic shift. Six years after her megapublicized marriage to Jonathan Plummer, 30—the Jamaican dreamboat on whom she based her '96 chart-topping book How Stella Got Her Groove Back—McMillan has filed for divorce, charging that their marriage was "based on deceit" because Plummer hid from her the fact that he is homosexual. In papers filed May 19 in Contra Costa County Superior Court, McMillan also charges that Plummer (who was 20 when McMillan, then 43, met him in Negril) married her for money and the hope of gaining U.S. citizenship. Though reluctant to sift through the details, McMillan told PEOPLE on June 21 that Plummer has moved out of her six-bedroom home in the Bay Area suburb of Danville. "Let's put it this way," says McMillan. "My husband and I are not going to be married anymore."

A San Francisco Chronicle article on June 26 put it more bluntly. The paper reported that Plummer countered in court papers that McMillan kicked him out in December after he disclosed his sexual orientation, and he says that she turned on him with "homophobic" vengeance. Claiming that he didn't know he was gay when they married, Plummer is seeking to void a prenup. A Superior Court judge has ordered that until the prenup undergoes court scrutiny in the fall, McMillan must pay Plummer spousal support of $2,000 monthly plus $25,000 in attorney's fees.

In the meantime, each party has obtained a restraining order against the other. McMillan has accused Plummer of embezzling at least $200,000 from her; in court papers, he owns up to taking $62,000, which he calls "a gross error of judgment," and says he intends to pay her back.

In the words of McMillan's lawyer Jill Hersh, "To find out your husband is gay is not the journey Terry packed for. Lots of aspects of this situation are disturbing. It is scary, because he was living a dual life, and could have exposed her to disease." Plummer's attorney did not return phone calls.

Sitting in the custom-built spread where she now lives alone (son Solomon Welch, 21, whom she had with a prior boyfriend, recently finished his junior year at Stanford), McMillan describes her emotional state less as anger than shock. "I have never felt such betrayal," she says. "I have never experienced that kind of pain, except for death. And what has happened is a death."

Ironically, McMillan says, she had begun to think about the differences in the way men and women approach partnership in 2002, when she began writing The Interruption of Everything, with a protagonist who lavishes everything on the family that flies the coop when she's in her 40s. "Women make a major investment in husbands and children," she says. "We do everything. And a lot of women don't have their own lives and end up completely dependent on their husbands."

Unlike her heroine, however, McMillan won't exactly be required to reinvent herself just because her first marriage is ending. An author who earns seven-figure advances, she has written three best-sellers that have inspired two movies (Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back). She enjoys the kind of freedom that comes with an accumulation of years and a sense of perspective. "I understand lots of stuff now that I didn't when I was younger," McMillan says on the eve of a 19-city book tour. "Now I can go anywhere, do anything. If I want to fly to Paris on Friday, I can. That, to me, is power."

In the end, says McMillan, "I never thought my happiness was contingent on having a man. A man should enrich it. But when that ceases to be the case, he's gotta go. I think, 'You are not putting me on an anchor and taking me to the bottom of the ocean with you. I'm not going.' "

Jill Smolowe. Alison Singh Gee in Danville

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