Toni Morrison’s slim new novel, Love, may seem, at first glance, to fit within a group of books one could crudely call Morrison Lite, not requiring any heavy lifting from the reader like her masterpieces, Beloved and Song of Solomon. But the appearance is deceptive. A distillation of many of her earlier themes, notably the theft of girlhood and wars over times now gone, Love is a rich parable about the damaging past as a demagogue ruling the present. And as with a number of her books, the story is passed from one character to another and gathers details and clarity as it is seen from one angle, then the next. Like a multifaceted stone, this intimate tale of seven women and one man is cut to refract the light as each of its characters sees it, turning their eyes round a reflecting center.
That center, the late Bill Cosey, the owner of a once-popular black beach resort in the South, is the most prominent ghost in the novel, and as such he can seem empty like glass, idealized by memory like the moonlight on his hotel’s Sooker Bay. In other lights, he is cold, foolish or corrupt. But like other Morrison ghosts, Bill Cosey represents that damaging past. In the novel’s present, his child bride, Heed, and granddaughter, Christine, the only survivors of a much-romanticized past, are in a bitter struggle over ownership of his property, symbolized by a will written on an old hotel menu. When a streetwise and homeless young woman named Junior Viviane comes to their home to work for Heed (and, Junior quickly realizes, to help Heed secure control of the estate), memories are set free and a final battle is put into motion. In the course of this battle, the stories of all of Cosey’s women emerge, as well as a picture of a community of women that seems helpless, contentious and hateful.
Heed (her full name is Heed the Night), Cosey’s tenacious widow from the wrong side of the tracks, calls him “Papa” and prefers to remember him as the “wonderful man” who “picked her out of all he could have chosen. Knowing she had no schooling, no abilities, no proper raising…” Christine, Heed’s childhood friend, is a three-time runaway,a refugee from marriage and the Black Power movement. She sees herself as “the one left behind, Miss Second Best” and views Cosey as her betrayer. The two are caught in a fight to the death.
Love opens with a Morrison overture, weaving strains of the novel’s poetry into a mysterious beckoning into the story and the company of the ever-present ghost. This prologue is titled “Love”–one of the rare occasions in the book when the word is actually used. The narrator, slyly named only L., grabs her victims by the eyeballs with one of the author’s startling first sentences: “The women’s legs are spread wide open, so I hum.”
L. is herself a ghost, who explains that she is “an old woman embarrassed by the world,” and romances us into the 1940s, when “Cosey’s Hotel and Resort was the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.” The hotel, where L. was the well-loved cook, bragged of names from a glamorous past–Lil Green, Fatha Hines, Jimmy Lunceford–and the perfection of places long gone; it “had more handsome single men per square foot than anyplace outside of Atlanta or even Chicago.” Despite the hyperbole, the easy living 1940s milieu at the heart of the book feels lived down to the lemon cake, and the good times feel like familiar kitchen-table stories.
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If Cosey is the enticing face of black success in “George Raft suits,” then L. is the black woman downstairs stirring the pots, raising the children, keeping the secrets, who leaves his funeral walking the beach in three-inch heels. L., whose name no one can remember, knows love as mercy. She is a perfect rendering of those shadowy African-Americans–surrogates and enablers–Morrison describes in a collection of lectures, Playing in the Dark, as lurking, ignored, yet defining all others in so much American fiction. She is an invention of the later Toni Morrison, a compassionate mediator between warring extremes.
Love‘s setting evokes places in Florida or the Carolinas where black beach towns once flourished, but does not attempt any particular regional flavor or history. This resort was a cosmopolitan enclave where folks came from all over–sought out in part because it was for the select few and excluded the nearby African-Americans who might have brought in the local flavor. The fault lines of class difference and class pretension are carefully delineated. The regular folk lived in Up Beach, which of course was not by the beach, and worked in a cannery that sent the occasional bad odor toward the luxury hotel.
Morrison painstakingly describes the privilege of those with diamond stickpins, fine cigars and monogrammed silver, pointedly contrasting it with a world in which a child’s bedroom is a luxury. Up Beach folk, she tells us, were viewed by the elite as “beach rats who bathed in a barrel and slept in their clothes,” who “never used two pieces of flatware to eat.” While less artful writers often produce caricatured upper-class blacks, Morrison creates a believable crew of upper-crust Negroes who send their kids to boarding schools, know how to “dress a bed,” set a table and be discreet with their indiscretions.
Less successful is the attempt to limn Heed’s struggle to elevate her Up Beach speech to leave an educated impression when she hasn’t been to school. While the laughter over her mistakes is apt for those characters who hold themselves superior, some of the errors–saying “professionate” for professional or calling a man “very marriage-ing”–strain belief, like taking salad made with mayonnaise to the beach. The looming “police-head” ghosts that threaten reckless women and unruly children don’t seem to fit or to be needed; the humans in a Morrison novel are much scarier. But these are quibbles.
Each chapter title names an archetypal male role, such as Friend, Benefactor, Lover, Husband, Guardian, Father. Fortunately, Morrison takes an oblique angle on these terms. Besides, her character Cosey rarely fulfilled any of those roles for anyone. Instead, one finds love confused with infatuation, lust, possession, masochism, delusion. There is love as substitution, love as mourning. Love as expecting abandonment and getting it. Love as habit, hate, charity and, just once, love as the real thing.
“Each story has a monster in it who made them tough instead of brave,” L. says. “All over the world, traitors help progress” by strengthening the survivors. Morrison’s traitors often liberate those around them, but seldom without high cost. If Cosey is Love‘s monster, then Love shows the many uses people make of such a person.
Vida, a grateful former employee of Cosey’s hotel, says “his pleasure was in pleasing.” Her husband, Sandler, who took the man fishing and liked him, remembers a calculating Cosey saying, “If you kill the predators, the weak will eat you alive.” The couple was liberated by Cosey from a destiny of struggle, maybe impoverishment. The cost, though, was to live with lies. Romen, the grandson they are raising, is liberated, in a manner of speaking, from teenage-macho posturing and fear of his own sweet nature by working in the Cosey house. Junior, Heed’s assistant, seduces him into kinky sexual trysts. Junior is momentarily liberated from not belonging, from shutting out memories of a dead father, and thinks of Cosey as her “Good Man,” with “kind eyes that promised to hold a girl steady on his shoulder while she robbed apples from the highest branch.” The cost of their fling could be someone’s death.
May, Cosey’s devoted daughter-in-law, was saved by marriage from one stifling life only to end up a servant in another. As Cosey saw it, she fit into his world well because she “showed signs of understanding what superior men require.” But when he dispossessed her, it cost her her sanity. Last, Celestial, a familiar Morrison spirit, grew up in a household of sporting women. She may also have been a child rescued by Cosey’s son. Her love for Cosey cost her her dignity.
“Each had been displaced by another; each had a unique claim on Cosey’s affection,” Morrison writes of the women in Love. Her target, however, seems to be patriarchy and the ways women have accommodated it by mistaking entrapment for love. All in all, the women of this novel are helpless in Cosey’s world and have no ability to make change inside marriages, low-wage employment, prostitution and, especially, girlhood. They fight petty domestic wars. More than loving Bill Cosey, they obeyed him.
There are curious echoes of Sula in Love, such as crazy May “turning…to the cooler side of the bed” as she dies, just as Sula does. Yet in the new novel, Morrison rejects some of the solutions of her earlier characters. “There’s not much sense,” she writes in Love, “in wasting time and life trying to put a woman in the asylum just to end up chipping ice for her to suck on,” a prominent choice made in the earlier novel. “Where’s the gain in setting fire to the nest you live in if you have to live in the ashes for fifty years?” L. asks, again recalling a vivid central image in Sula. In Love, she pointedly revisits the deadly poisonous weeds in Sula‘s first sentence. Is this recurrence accidental or the insistence of a repeated theme?
The love almost defeated in this novel is the same love as in The Bluest Eye and Sula, and shown in other forms in Jazz and Paradise–a love with roots in girlhood, like that of Pecola and Claudia, Sula and Nel. Theirs is a love that unfolds hearts that have been closed by the discovery that mothers can turn away from a child’s loving gaze or that, to quote Jazz, “no one loves them because they are not really here.” While Love may not have the disturbing beauty of Sula or Morrison’s other great novels, its mercies may bring a wider audience into her contentious, rewarding universe.