Feeling unproductive? Now get this: During the 18 months it took her to write her latest novel, When Love Calls, You Better Answer, the 45-year-old Berry got married and then divorced, and her mother fell ill with a brain tumor.
It's not too surprising that the main character in When Love Calls is a tad overwhelmed as well. Bernita Brown has a pretty rough go of it. She grows up fatherless, with a mother and aunt so messed up that they beat her the day she announces she's off to college. She marries a man only to find out he's gay and then enters a series of unproductive relationships, including one with her married pastor, who hits on her repeatedly and then blames her for his infidelity. Fortunately, Bernita's ancestors -- in particular, dead Aunt Babe (yes, the same aunt who beat her) -- are looking out for her from the afterlife. Babe, who narrates the tale, finds Bernita the perfect man. The question is whether Bernita has the trust -- and the energy -- to let both her aunt and this man into her life.
While the afterlife is a distinct, accessible place in When Love Calls, the book is not overtly doctrinaire (read: Christian) in its projection of the hereafter. In fact, Berry -- ever the sociologist -- studied how several different cultures, including those of Egypt, Malaysia, Hawaii and the American South, perceive the afterlife and ancestral influences. Babe talks with Bernita through a series of séance-like rituals, hidden messages and whispered words, and Bernita learns to forgive and trust her once-abusive forebears.
"I've come into believing and understanding that the spirits of our ancestors are around us," Berry says. "Those who passed on are still with us, and we can learn from what they knew." Remarkably, after Berry created the character of Aunt Babe, her ailing mother informed her that she had, in fact, had an Aunt Babe, who died when Berry was a toddler, and that the character was the "spitting image" of the long-dead woman.
Despite her frequent interaction with the Great Beyond, Bernita's struggles -- she's a young, career-oriented woman looking for love -- should be familiar to the secular crowd. But she's no Bridget/Carrie clone. Berry's not sure that African-American women can always relate to the recent chick-lit phenomenon. "I don't know if it's a search for the next good date," she says. "It's more of a search for love and connection.
"Our novels tend to always have some spiritual aspect; there's a family aspect. Romance for us is so huge, because somebody's grandmother is living in the back room. Dating is not like Sex and the City for me."
So the message to all the single ladies out there, apparently, is not to stock up on Manolos or worry about waxing. Maybe it's just time to listen a little harder.