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Love by Toni Morrison
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Jul 20, 2009

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His soft eyes stare out invitingly from the portrait above the bed, but his lips aren’t talking. Bill Cosey has been dead for 25 years. And women in the small town of Silk are still scratching at each other over him.

Toni Morrison paints a disturbing, delicate, and erotic portrait of female friendship in Love, her eighth novel. She shows how this emotion, and the need for it, can lead to the deepest forms of hatred. In the words of the author: “Love is the weather. Betrayal is the lightning that cleaves and reveals it.”

Morrison is best known for Beloved, a novel on slavery in the American South. Written from multiple points of view, it alternates between a family’s slave past and their post-Civil War present. The masterful portrayal of changing generations within an Africa-American family, particularly its women, is reprised in Love. We learn in Faulkneresque fashion about the women Cosey affected, through voices that oscillate between past and present, the gilded world of Cosey’s Resort and the anger and bitterness of a community emptied after the last glamorous guests have left town.

Junior shows up at the Cosey women’s doorstep hungry, her long, bare legs encased in dirty black boots. Christine immediately dislikes her. Heed invites the young girl upstairs and hires her because she lets her talk.

Heed was eleven when Mr. Cosey took her as his wife. He led her to the ocean and let the water run over her body. Now in her eighties, her immobile hands cannot record her memories of her marriage, so she tells stories about “Papa” as Junior bathes her, envying the girl’s young skin and her ability to feel.

Christine inhabits the world and the floor beneath Heed’s, chopping chicken as diamond rings twinkle from each finger. She has been caring for Heed for years, this woman that married her grandfather and ruined her life. There was a time when the two girls shared laughs under beach blankets as best friends. She does not think of that anymore.

Morrison’s language alternately turns on and soothes the reader, enrages and mystifies. Her women are dark and powerful; warriors destroyed and re-built by their own making. They take turns telling how Bill Cosey brought a hotel and hope to a black community at mid-century, taking the citizens of Silk out of their bleak jobs at the cannery and offering them a glimpse into the world of well-dressed guests and parties by the sea. From awe at his good works to outrage at his sexual exploits to a final mystery surrounding his death, we are drawn into a world where friendships are sundered by marriage and marriages desecrated by lust.

The joy of reading a work by Morrison lies in her ability to flesh out a character with a few, searing strokes: “Her eyes swept Junior’s face, then examined her clothes…she had quickly positioned herself at the window to strike the right pose, give a certain impression. But she needn’t have bothered. The girl was not at all what she had expected.” She gives us women who are intimidating and afraid all at once, women who have been protecting themselves for so long that they don’t know how to relate to one another anymore save for shows of forced strength.

The shadowy, disembodied voice of “L” runs throughout the novel, at times providing insight into secrets buried in the breasts of the women of Love. Morrison’s dense plot, spanning two generations and seen through the eyes of multiple characters, is alternately clouded and illuminated by L’s stream-of-consciousness commentary, offered up in italicized blocks of prose poetry: “I’m the background—the movie music that comes along when the sweethearts see each other for the first time, or when the husband is walking the beachfront alone wondering if anybody saw him doing the bad thing he couldn’t help.”

It is unclear whether “L” is dead or alive; she seems to hang in the air, timeless, speaking of the past and what unfolded in the halls of a hotel now rotting with neglect. Morrison said she wanted her characters to be observed by an “‘I’ not restricted by chronology or space— or the frontier between life and not-life.” In a novel already bursting at the seams, this element is a bit distracting, though the beauty of her prose justifies this overlay to her verbal quilt work.

Love is rich in poetic language, a complex painting of complicated women that critiques the way we define love and attacks racism and sexism along the way. This is Morrison writing about what she does best, though perhaps she has already done it better.

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