Cover image for All of me : a voluptuous tale
All of me : a voluptuous tale
Berry, Venise T.
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Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Dutton, [2000]

Physical Description:
274 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
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So Good, Venise Berry's first novel, spent six months on Essence magazine's Blackboard bestseller list and was an Alternate Selection of the Literary Guild "RM" . With All of Me, Berry again delivers a compelling, humorous, and poignant story on a subject that plagues half the women in America -- weight. Serpentine Williamson has a good life: an exciting career as a television reporter in Chicago, a sexy boyfriend, membership in a popular gospel choir, and a family who loves her. But in the midst of her positives lies a powerful negative -- her lifelong struggle with weight.

After years of buying into fads and labels, Serpentine finds her world crumbling. And, finally losing the battle to uphold her plummeting self-esteem, she breaks down and needs to be hospitalized. All of Me is a heartwarming, inspiring, and often funny chronicle of Serpentine's fight for recovery. As she learns to meet her challenges with dignity and strength she also learns to love herself, for the first time, just the way she is. All of Me will resonate with women of all shapes and sizes and will once again affirm Venise Berry as a fresh voice in African-American women's fiction, whose snappy characters, according to Rosalyn McMillan, "double-dare you to put the book down."

Author Notes

Venise Berry is the author of the Blackboard bestsellers All of Me and So Good . She is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Iowa.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Berry tackles the subject of weight with humor and tact, focusing on society's rejection of overweight people as well as their own personal sadness and agony. Serpentine, named after the missing word in a crossword puzzle when her mother's water broke, is an attractive, witty, unhappy television reporter. For as long as she can remember, she has struggled with her weight and made life decisions based on being an overweight woman. Her constant battles with weight seem so out of character for a woman who has been tremendously successful in all other areas of her life. She succumbs to the overwhelming sadness by attempting suicide. It is that act that forces her to deal with her unhappiness and lack of confidence. Serpentine finally realizes that her weight is a mere fraction of her totality as a woman. Berry does an excellent job of portraying Serpentine's breakdown as well as her struggle back to good mental, emotional, and physical health. This book may make the notable book lists as did Berry's first novel, So Good (1996). --Lillian Lewis

Publisher's Weekly Review

Berry's second novel (after her well-received debut So Good) explores the complexities of body-image, weight and self-esteem in the life of African-American TV news reporter Serpentine Williams. Forty years old, with a successful career and loving family, Serpentine is smart, sassy and ambitious, but as the story opens, she's in a hospital after a suicide attempt. The narrative then follows the heroine through her sessions with a psychiatrist, her memories of childhood and adolescence and her history of tormented love relationshipsÄrevealing that her negative body image has poisoned many aspects of her life. Fat jokes as a child, fear of men's rejection, the media's constant touting of an unattainable physical ideal have all contributed to her despair. Unjust and painful episodes abound: a fan of her news program approaches her to tell her she's too fat, and television executives argue whether her zaftig appearance is appropriate for her TV image. While the trajectory of Serpentine's depression, as well as her eventual triumph, is poignant and realistic, Berry's style is sometimes erratic. Weaving in platitudes about the evils of advertising between anecdotes from Serpentine's past, Berry brings the protagonist to life as a smart, good-humored and resilient woman, but never convincingly portrays why such a strong person succumbs to disapproval of her appearance. As Serpentine recovers from depression, she finds love, validation in her job, a healthy cure for her self-loathing and renewed faith in herself. The conclusion is tidy but resonant, and the novel addresses the important and generally overlooked issue of body image for African-American women in a winning and absorbing manner. By turns serious and funny, Berry's tale is, in the end, a hopeful one, with a lovable and soul-searching heroine readers will sympathize with, and root for. Agent, Denise Stinson. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Serpentine Williamson, a television reporter in Chicago, is an African American woman whose low self-esteem almost ruins her life. Hospitalized after a breakdown, she begins to confront her challenges. Although she has a loving family, supportive friends, and a devoted boyfriend, Serpentine's voluptuous body and excessive weight gain have been issues for most of her adult life. How can she love herself when she hates the way she looks? Through flashbacks, reminiscences, notes from her journal, and excerpts from sessions with her therapist, readers come to know and like this feisty woman, who has much more to give herself and those she loves than she realizes. When Serpentine eventually gains the strength and dignity to begin her recovery, readers will breathe a sigh of relief. Women of all races will find this book funny, sad, inspiring, and delightful; from the author of So Good.--Ellen R. Cohen, Rockville, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Serpentine Williamson woke up on New Year's Day in a pale yellow hospital room with a plastic name band fastened to her wrist. As she drifted in and out of consciousness through the night, she only remembered bits and pieces. She could hear the piercing screams of her sister, LaJune, who had found her in the garage.     That memory was mixed with the sound of a high-pitched ambulance siren whirling repeatedly out into the night. Another layer of the memory included the rhythmic crackle of her oxygen mask each time she took a breath.     She still felt the pounding that occurred in her head each time her body was moved. First, from the front seat of her car to the ambulance, next from the ambulance to the emergency room, then, once her vital signs were stable, up to the psychiatric ward on the fifth floor.     Her stomach was queasy and the throbbing pain in her head seemed even more intense as she lifted her body upward. Serpentine pulled off the clear plastic mask and bent over to look for the silver pan.     She didn't see it, so she steadied herself and slid to the floor. She carefully made her way across the room, crawling past the bed, around a metal chair, and finally into the small, sterile bathroom. There wasn't enough time to raise the worn toilet seat, so she shoved her head into the oval opening and threw up a large hunk of lumpy, yellow-green gall. Serpentine squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced when toilet water and vomit splashed back up against her face.     She started to pull her head out, but the vicious churning forced her down again. She pressed her hand hard against her chest until the nausea subsided. Then she slowed her breathing to avoid fully inhaling the smell. She didn't move right away, she couldn't. She sat on the cold, orange, tile floor, leaning her head on the toilet seat and waiting for the next round.     After the second bout, Serpentine slowly lifted herself up from the floor, flushed, and washed out her mouth in the sink. She wet the edge of a towel with cold water and held the cool cotton up to her face, creating a sensation that had to be what the grace of God felt like on judgment day. Then she wiped off the sides of the stool and used the wall to maneuver her way back to the old, metal bed. Serpentine's first week on the fifth floor went by very slowly. She fought the chills, headaches, and nausea that rotated frequently. After signing a form to disallow visitors or phone calls, she also refused both sessions with her assigned psychiatrist. Serpentine didn't feel like talking. She didn't have anything to say.     It had been a long time since she'd dreamed, but twice that week, Serpentine was awakened by a familiar nightmare from her childhood. She found herself in the middle of a huge spider web with an immense brown spider circling her body. The dark red eyes focused on his task of covering her skin with gooey white thread. She opened her mouth to scream, but there was no sound, and no matter how much she fought the silk binding she couldn't break free.     When the huge spider finally picked her up, Serpentine started to cry. She cringed each time her head bumped up against the creature's round, hairy body. It dragged her kicking and screaming into the same hole where, as a child, she had watched other meals disappear. Then, as the wide jaws opened slowly above her head, she'd force herself to wake up. During the second week, Serpentine attended her scheduled psychiatrist's appointment, mainly out of boredom. When the door first swung open, she stood and stared at a tall, elderly man with wrinkled knuckles and a thin gold band on his left ring finger.     "Good morning, Serpentine," he said cheerfully. "I'm Dr. Greeley."     Serpentine didn't respond right away. She flopped down in the padded black wingback chair and stared out the window.     "So, can we talk about why you wanted to die?" Dr. Greeley asked with caution.     Serpentine rolled her eyes and continued to focus on the soap-streaked window.     "Serpentine, I need for you to talk to me in order for us to get anywhere," Dr. Greeley added.     She hesitated for a moment watching a newly planted sapling outside dance with the wind. "I just didn't want to be here anymore," she finally replied.     Dr. Greeley scribbled a note on his pad, then continued.     " Why didn't you want to be here anymore?" he asked. "Can you tell me?"     That question had so many answers, it would take much too long to explain. She absorbed the beauty of the sunshine outside, ignoring the intrusive question. She closed her eyes, thinking how even the sunshine could hurt you, if you stayed in it too long.     "Okay, then let's get to know each other a little bit. I see from your file that your mother and father are Nolita and Kendrick Williamson. They live in Kansas City, Missouri. Is that right?" he asked, stopping to give her a moment to respond.     She glanced in his direction and took a deep, disgusted breath.     "You have a sister, LaJune Thompson who's married to a naval officer, and an aunt, Regina Bentley, both living here in Chicago."     Serpentine frowned. "Where did you get all of that information?" she asked, resenting the invasion of privacy.     "Your sister LaJune checked you in and other family members have called since you were admitted."     "I don't want to talk about them." Serpentine continued with an attitude. She wasn't crazy, but this man and his questions could easily drive her there.     "Well, can we talk about you?" Dr. Greeley paused for a moment.     "It doesn't matter, really," Serpentine mumbled.     "It could help me to help you," Dr. Greeley responded, quickly.     Serpentine crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't need your help," she said.     The tick of the clock grew louder as a painful silence swept the room.     "Maybe we could at least clarify some additional information today," he said, almost pleading for her cooperation. "You're not married, no kids, right?"     Serpentine twisted her head toward him and nodded. He was anal. Probably one of those men who could complete his Christmas shopping for twenty-five relatives on Christmas Eve and still have time for a quick nine holes of golf.     "What about your job? It has to be very exciting to work at a television station. You're a reporter at WXYZ?"     Serpentine rolled her eyes up into her head. "I'm sorry, but I really don't want to do this right now," she moaned. "I think maybe it was a mistake for me to come today."     "Maybe we can try something else," Dr. Greeley said, struggling to break through. "There's something else I'd really like to know."     Serpentine welcomed the disgusted look that took over her face. Why couldn't he just let her go back to her room? She looked him up and down. His marriage was probably domestic incarceration.     "Your name is very unusual. Can you tell me how you got it?"     Serpentine didn't answer right away. She watched as Dr. Greeley waited patiently.     "From my mama," she eventually muttered.     "And how did your mother come to choose such a name?" he came back, quickly.     Serpentine glanced in his direction and slowly lifted her sunken shoulders up to sit straighter in the chair. It was obvious that he wasn't planning to let her go until she told him something.     "`Serpentine' was a word in a crossword puzzle that my mother was finishing the day her water broke," she explained. "When Mama looked up the word in the dictionary, it was defined as `coiling, winding, and twisting like a serpent,' and those were characteristics she wanted me to have when it came to life's contradictions."     "Interesting. Do you have those characteristics?"     Serpentine turned and stared out the window again. "I tried," she murmured.     As she watched a dog mark his territory her lips curled slightly. Her name was one of the few things she liked about herself. It was special and it made her special. It had been a long time since she'd had those feelings. Serpentine swallowed hard. Since Dr. Greeley had to know something she would tell him about the concert that changed her life.     "The second semester of my sophomore year of college, I had been dumped by my first love and went into a serious funk for several months. I didn't want to go anywhere, but my cousin Tevan dragged me to an Earth, Wind & Fire concert with him." Serpentine had gone to Sycamore Mall that morning to find something to wear. It was then that she realized she'd lost weight during her blue funk period. Her regular size fourteen hung off her medium frame like a baggy canvas, but the twelve fit perfectly. A racy red halter dress with black-leather wedged pumps was her final selection. Even though she could barely sit down in the minidress without feeling like something was hanging out, she was so excited, she refused to care.     When Tevan picked her up, he teased her about looking too sexy. She smiled. Tevan knew how to boost her ego, always focusing on the positive. Whenever she complained about anything he'd say, "The more you complain, the more work you have to do here on earth, so the longer God will let you stay."     When they stepped into the Hancher Auditorium, she tossed her head high up in the air and hung on to Tevan's arm. Serpentine enjoyed the attention of men old and young, staring, winking, and grinning. When Tevan wasn't looking, one guy slipped her a piece of paper with his phone number on it and whispered through a heart-carved gold tooth, "When ya call ax for Pretty Boy."     They found their seats in the middle of the sixth row just as the lights went down. Serpentine's eyes searched the darkness until she saw wisps of smoke filling the stage. It smoldered around three gigantic white pyramids; sliding inside and out like a snake stalking its prey. Serpentine shifted forward in her seat just as the music began.     Suddenly bolts of red, green, and yellow light flashed in front of her and nine men ran out onstage, shaking to the funky beat of "Shining Star." The audience leaped to their feet, clapping and whistling. Serpentine reflected on the many shades of brown. Each member was dressed in white. Some wore vests with bellbottom pants; others had short-sleeved shirts on and wide-brimmed hats, and a few sported clinging blazers that hung open to give sexy bare chests the exposure they deserved.     "Shining Star" was followed by "That's the Way of the World," "Getaway," and "Keep Your Head to the Sky." They kept the jams coming, including Serpentine's favorite, "Reasons." When Maurice White paused onstage to introduce the members of the band, he talked briefly about their new album, All 'N All . Suddenly Philip Bailey's falsetto voice began to sing and Serpentine's mouth flew open. She thought she would die, because he was singing her name.     Her face went flush as she closed her eyes and repeated the chorus under her breath. "Gonna tell the story of morning glory, all about the serpentine fire. Surely life's begun, you will as one, battle with the serpentine fire."     It felt good to remember that wonderful moment in her life. It was one of the few times she could remember being truly happy. She had never seen or heard her name anywhere before. It often made her mad as a child that she couldn't find her name on the pre-designed key chains like the other kids. But this more than made up for it. "Serpentine Fire" was her song.     Serpentine couldn't get the melody out of her head that night. She silently hummed the tune all the way back to her dorm room, as she lathered up in a warm shower, while she put on her cotton pajamas, and even when she closed her eyes and summoned sleep.     In the cafeteria the next day, several friends teased her. One asked if she was related to somebody in the group. She lied and said Maurice White was her cousin. A couple wondered if she had heard the song before and she told them that her uncle Philip sang it to her over the phone months ago. She even fibbed to her best friend, Marleen, saying that she'd met Maurice White and Philip Bailey a few years back when they were staying at a hotel in Kansas City, and her name inspired the song. "I bought the album the next day and collected as much background information on the group as I could. I was so crazy that I spent days researching the album cover," she told Dr. Greeley.     "What kind of research?" he asked.     "It wasn't a normal cover; they had a bunch of symbols on it. I don't remember all of them right now, but the front was focused on the past. There was an Egyptian pyramid that resembled a temple built by King Ramses II called Abu Simbel. Two chiseled warriors sat on each side of the doorway, and above the entrance was an image of a woman holding on to two small children. From inside the open doorway there was an intense beam of light pushing outward. I thought that light held all the answers back then."     Dr. Greeley shifted in his seat. "How?" he asked, softly.     Serpentine tilted her head and thought for a moment. "Because it pulled you inside the cover to reflections of good and bad experiences in life. There were dark, menacing clouds and lightning mixed with angels, and an open book for knowledge. Ten or twelve pedestals each held symbols like the wand of Hermes, a Greek god, who was said to have power over dreams. There was a Buddha seated on a lotus flower, representing meditation and serenity. I also remember an ankh, a Star of David, a menorah, and even a cross."     "So how did all of this change your life?"     Serpentine turned and faced Dr. Greeley. "Maybe it didn't change my life, but it definitely changed my attitude about my life, at least for a little while. You probably can't understand, but that song made me special. It made my name and ultimately my life, unique. The back cover of the album was all about the future. There were a series of modern-looking space station facilities, with five rockets flying upward. And I just knew that's where I was headed--up," Serpentine told him, then suddenly stopped talking.     "Is something wrong?" Dr. Greeley asked, taking note of her abrupt mood change.     "That turned out to be a pretty good year in my life," Serpentine continued, but her heart wasn't in it. "In 1974 I officially adopted `Fire' as my middle name, then, not long after that, everything fell apart again."     "Do you want to tell me what happened?"     Serpentine shook her head no, and turned and stared out the window again. Things got a little easier the third week. Serpentine stepped into Dr. Greeley's office with a slightly better attitude. She had counted the bricks on each wall in her room three different times. Every time she came up with a different total: first, 1,456; second, 1,355; and third, 1,460. She couldn't count the bricks again, so she needed something else to concentrate on or she might really go crazy.     Dr. Greeley was on the phone when she entered. She sat down on his faded brown leather couch and intensely surveyed the wall behind his desk. It was typical for someone at his level, with two diplomas, a few certificates, and several gold-and-silver plaques.     "So, Serpentine, are you ready to get started?" Dr. Greeley asked as he hung up the phone. "I thought from the last session we could begin by contrasting happiness and sadness."     "Fine," Serpentine replied, picking at the raw cuticle on her left thumb.     Dr. Greeley waited for her to speak, but when a few silent moments had passed he continued. "Why don't you tell me about something you like to do? Maybe something that makes you happy or even something that makes you sad?" Dr. Greeley's childlike tone annoyed her.     "I like to write," she replied. "I've always liked to write. That's why I went into journalism. I don't really know what makes me happy, because I've been happy so rarely in my life. And sad? Almost everything makes me sad."     "Is that why you attempted suicide?" Dr. Greeley asked, letting the question float out into the air and hang there for a while.     Serpentine tried to organize the jumble of words in her head, with little success.     Dr. Greeley seemed to recognize her difficulty. "So what did you want out of life, Serpentine, that you didn't get?"     She scratched her forehead and glanced at him thoughtfully. "I wanted the world to stop trying to fit me into neatly arranged categories. I wanted this screwed-up society to allow me a little happiness. I wanted the fact that I'm black, a woman, and full-figured to have no impact on my relationships."     Dr. Greeley nodded his head stiffly. "When people try to squeeze you into these categories, how does it make you feel?" he continued.     Serpentine's mother had always told her that no question was a stupid question, but Serpentine had to disagree here. "How do you think I feel?" she screamed at the balding figure in front of her. "I get mad. I get pissed off! I get sick of it! Why do you think I'm in here listening to your bullshit?"     Dr. Greeley waited a moment before he spoke, showing no visible reaction to her outburst. "What could you do differently if people did not see you as black or female or full-figured?"     Serpentine rested her elbow on the edge of the couch and shook her head. "Maybe I could live a normal life for a change," she replied. "Focus on simply being a human being. I could walk into a job interview or a meeting without putting my guard up. I wouldn't have to keep watching for the bias that always appears because of my race or gender or weight."     Serpentine wondered how interested he really was. His sincerity seemed as phony as those people who put plastic on their furniture to keep from using it.     "Can you give me a specific example?" Dr. Greeley asked.     Serpentine took some time to think before she spoke. She felt patronized, but offered the easy example that came to mind, anyway. "I saw this report on television once about a study that had been conducted at Vassar College. For forty days they fattened up a group of rats, then put them on a low-calorie diet. It took twenty-one days for the rats to go from obese back to normal. Then they fattened up the same rats again. The second time it only took fourteen days to get them back up to obese, and when they put the rats back on the same diet, it took forty-six days for them to lose the same pounds."     "And explain how that study relates to you?" Dr. Greeley asked with a wrinkled brow.     Serpentine's eyes shot up into her head. "I'm one of those rats, Doc. I'm caught in that cycle. I go up, then back down again. Only it's not just my weight, it's my family, men, my job. My life is like a never-ending twirly-cup ride at Adventureland making me sick!"     "But doesn't everybody have these same kinds of highs and lows?" he asked soothingly.     Serpentine scowled at his insensitivity. It was impossible to explain her reality as a black female in America to this man. He had no clue. As long as his white privilege was in place so he could wear thousand-dollar designer suits, live in his big house out in the suburbs, and drive his convertible sports car, he was not about to take the blinders off. This world had been good to people like him and their experiences would never connect.     As if unconsciously responding to her changing mood, Dr. Greeley nervously fiddled with the blinds. "Do you prefer that these be open or closed?"     Serpentine twisted her face in disbelief. "Who gives a damn about the blinds!" she screamed. "I thought we were supposed to be talking about me!"     Dr. Greeley shifted uncomfortably in his seat and glanced at the clock on the wall. "You're right, I'm sorry, but our time is up, unfortunately. I'll see you next week," he said quickly, standing up. "I think we covered some important ground today."     Serpentine jumped up from the couch, and rushed out the door without looking back. "I can't believe I'm the one locked up," she fumed.     It took a while for Dr. Greeley to release Serpentine back into the real world. He decided, however, that there would be a stipulation. Because she refused to take the drug he was recommending, she would need to continue outpatient therapy with him twice a week. Copyright (c) 2000 Venise Berry. All rights reserved.