- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003


By Toni Morrison

Knopf, $23.95, 208 pages


Arguably the most overused word in the language, a noble concept more honored in the breach than in the observance, love takes many forms — familial, erotic, platonic, altruistic — and covers a multitude of sins: lust, obsession, possessiveness, and folly. The mysterious woman whose voice is the first we hear in Toni Morrison’s masterly new novel has much to say on the subject and she is well worth listening to:

“Young people, Lord. Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty. Before I was reduced to singsong, I saw all kinds of mating. Most are two-night stands trying to last a season.

“Some, the riptide ones, claim exclusive right to the real name, even though everybody drowns in its wake. People with no imagination feed it with sex — the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that — softly, without props. But the world is such a showpiece, maybe that’s why folks try to outdo it, put everything they feel onstage just to prove they can think of things too: handsome scary things like fights to the death, adultery, setting sheets afire.

“They fail, of course. The world outdoes them every time. While they are busy showing off, digging other people’s graves, hanging themselves on a cross, running wild in the streets, cherries are quietly turning from green to red, oysters are suffering pearls, and children are catching rain in their mouths …”

People no longer really notice the old woman who speaks these words. No one even seems to remember her actual name: she’s known only by the initial L. But once upon a time, in segregation days, she was the cook at the Cosey Hotel and Resort, a seaside haven for black vacationers. Bill Cosey was the name of the charismatic man who transformed an unpromising strip of beachfront into a fashionable mecca where famous black musicians came to play and guests hungry for elegance, romance, and good times danced into the wee hours amid music, moonlight, and ocean breezes.

And, although Bill Cosey has been dead since 1971, his memory lingers on, a powerful presence in the minds and hearts of the half dozen women we come to know in the course of this exquisitely written, constantly surprising novel.

Wealthy, poised, affable, and self-confident, Bill Cosey was the cynosure of his community: He seemed to embody all the qualities people admire in a man. Even Junior, a streetwise teenage girl who comes to town years after Cosey’s death, never having met the man, having only seen his picture, nonetheless comes to think of him as the wise and perfect father she wishes she’d had.

The hotel no longer exists. (Some say that the success of the civil rights movement spelled the end of it, but others, including L, believe that its problems were internal.) Nowadays two aging, if not yet elderly women, Christine and Heed, inhabit the house Bill Cosey left to one of them.

When Junior arrives on their doorstep to inquire about a position as secretary-companion to the tiny, crabbed, arthritic Heed, she immediately picks up on the fierce enmity between the two women: Heed was Cosey’s second wife; Christine, his granddaughter. Yet the two are not very far apart in age. Heed seems to own the place and rule the roost, but Christine reigns in the kitchen. Cosey’s last testament, scrawled on a napkin, was ambiguous: although Heed has thus far prevailed as his primary heir, Christine has some reason to believe she may have been the one he had in mind.

In the opinion of Vida Gibbons, a down-to-earth, happily married woman who used to work at the hotel, the admirable Bill Cosey may well have been the victim of one of the women in his life. Vida’s equally sensible husband, Sandler, doesn’t think so: He knew Cosey reasonably well, having been one of his fishing companions, and, although he liked Cosey in some ways, he doesn’t share his wife’s exalted opinion of the man.

These days, the Gibbonses have their hands full with Romen, their teenage grandson who’s living with them. He’s begun to develop a certain slouching gait that portends trouble. The story of Romen’s dangerous passage through the rocky straits of young manhood — including a red-hot affair with the street-wise Junior — lends yet another strand to Ms. Morrison’s subtle and multi-dimensional exploration of the themes of sexuality, gender, and love.

And then there was May, who’s dead now: Christine’s mother and the widow of Billy Boy, Bill Cosey’s son by his first marriage to a beautiful woman named Julia. The soft-spoken daughter of a preacher, May helped her father-in-law run the hotel. She seems to have been a model of efficiency. Yet she also seems to have developed a touch of kleptomania. It was May in particular who feared the impact of the civil rights movement and, worse yet, the riots of the 1960s: this kind of behavior, she feared, would give whites the excuse to close down Cosey’s.

Ironically, May’s daughter Christine becomes involved, much to her cost, with Fruit, just the kind of black radical that her mother so feared: “He was a fine-boned man, intense, with large beautiful hands and a mesmerizing voice. He clarified the world for her. Her grandfather (a bourgeois traitor); her mother (a handkerchief-head); Heed (a field hand wannabe)…Then he outlined her own obligations. With apology for her light skin, gray eyes, and hair threatening a lethal silkiness, Christine became a dedicated helpmeet, coherent and happy to serve.”

Like the author’s previous novel, “Paradise,” “Love” tells a complicated story using a variety of narrative voices and perspectives. But this time, Ms. Morrison has created a novel as compelling as it is complex. “Love” is a concentrated book: nothing in it is extraneous and everything in it deepens, expands, or utterly transforms our understanding of the story, the characters, and the multiple meanings of love.

The plot, moving backwards and forwards through time, contains enough surprises and revelations to stock a first-class mystery, but what makes it more gripping than any mere tale of suspense is the way it delves beneath the layers of legend, gossip, and speculation to uncover the reality of the past. And although we are shown the viewpoints of several characters, Ms. Morrison does not take refuge in the kind of cheap relativism that would claim it is impossible to discover the truth because all of the conflicting viewpoints are equally suspect and equally valid.

Instead, we learn how and why each character has come to think, feel, and behave as she or he does. And, in the case of the bitter enemies Heed and Christine, they finally manage to break through their impasse to the memory of a purer, simpler kind of love and a powerful recognition of the forces that have shaped their lives.

Stunning in its cumulative effect, “Love” is a deeply satisfying work of the novelist’s art. The writing is flavorful, vivid, and amazingly varied: by turns coolly deadpan, fiercely witty, high-flown, down-to-earth, pithily plainspoken, intensely poetic. Here, for example, is Christine returning home after 28 years that began with radical activism and ended in prostitution:

“Then home: a familiar place that, when you left, kept changing behind your back. The creamy oil painting you carried in your head turned into house paint. Vibrant, magical neighbors became misty outlines of themselves. The house nailed down in your dreams and nightmares comes undone, not sparkling but shabby, yet even more desirable because what happened to it had happened to you. The house had not shrunk; you had. The windows were not askew — you were. Which is to say it was more yours than ever.”

And Ms. Morrison’s supple, inviting, endlessly inventive prose is not just for show, but for telling the startling and poignant stories of her characters, whose strengths and weaknesses, depravities and virtues she chronicles with a fierce integrity exceeded only by her compassion.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in California.

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