by Toni Morrison
Published by Knopf
202 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Nicole Moses
As the title clearly states, Toni Morrison's latest opus, Love, is a story about just that: love, in all it's assorted varieties -- familial, romantic, self, perverted, platonic and tough. And while the preface suggests a story "that shows how brazen women can take a good man down," what Morrison delivers is a vivid and stirring account of the turmoil that ensues when young women are deprived of the parental -- but mostly paternal -- love and guidance that is their birthright. With Love, Ms. Morrison targets her usual mostly female and black audience, depicting African-American characters and splashing flashbacks of the Civil Rights Movement sprucely throughout. However, the messages she conveys -- the importance of communication, self-esteem, education, soul-searching, relationships and human nature -- are universal and timeless, transcending gender and race.
The nine-chapter novel, set mainly in 1990s East American coast country, is a tale of childhood confusion, miscommunication and all the hurt and wrong that can follow. It takes place in a town called Silk, in a house at 1 Monarch Street -- home to the Cosey women: Heed, Christine and May, the wife, granddaughter and daughter-in-law respectively, of Bill Cosey -- resident rich man and proprietor of the popular-in-the-40s, Cosey's Hotel and Resort. A woman named L is the resort's first-rate chef and levelheaded arbitrator.
While the story is written in the third-person, L's segments are in first-person and italics, making the story easier to follow. Sometimes Morrison's writing can be challenging to navigate, but it's one of the things that make her writing so engaging. There is no lackadaisical word-skimming when it comes to reading a Toni Morrison novel; you must be aware and present or you will be lost.
L never reveals her actual name, but she does say that, "Some thought it was Louise or Lucille..." and that, "Others, from hearing people mention or call me, said it was El for Eleanor or Elvira. They're all wrong." Personally, I think the L stands for Love and that the novel is written in her name. One thing that is clear, is the fact that she has known Bill Cosey the longest and better than anyone else can claim. The strong and silent type, L quietly oversees everyone and everything, witnessing firsthand the dynamics between him and his women.
There's Julia, his first wife, who is appalled when she discovers where his money comes from. There's the working girl, Celestial, who seems to be his favorite. There's Vida Gibbons, the resort's receptionist, who calls him "the county role model," and considers him royalty since he saves her from a life of cannery work. And there's Heed, May and Christine: the "family" for which he builds that house in Silk.
The son of a snitch, Bill Cosey inherits his affluence from his father -- a courthouse informer and lover of money. Prodigal, sentimental, charming and morally questionable, at the age of 52, Bill Cosey marries Heed -- an uneducated 11 year-old child "with fire ants for family." Cosey's mentally unsound daughter-in-law, May, seemingly jealous of Heed, does everything in her power to keep her away from her own daughter, Christine, who having suddenly lost her father to "walking pneumonia," already has issues of her own to contend with. What May doesn't realize is that Christine and Heed, so similar in age, have already connected and simply do not understand why they can't be friends.
This mystery spawns years of tragic misunderstanding between the girls. They vie endlessly for Cosey's love and affection, even after his death, and ultimately develop a deep and dark hatred for one another. But it's a thin line between love and hate, and eventually after years of seething resentment, the Cosey's conflicts are finally resolved, albeit shockingly. With the help of their decorous errand boy, Romen Gibbons, and a young outsider named Junior Viviane, the truth is finally brought to light.
Book-smart and street-savvy, Junior is my favorite character in the novel. She is only 11 when she runs away from "the Settlement," and years later, after much homeless struggle and strife, a help-wanted ad brings her to 1 Monarch Street where she is hired by Heed to write the Cosey family history. Junior is rough around the edges, but she's deep enough to know that at the heart of survival is self-love and in that respect, she is inspiring.
Heed can relate to Junior. She sees something of herself in the young girl and finds their common link during an "aha" moment she experiences: "That's what it is, what made me take her on. We're both out here alone." The truth is, aside from being prematurely thrust into the world at the tender age of 11, I don't believe these ladies have as much in common as Heed thinks.
On the one hand, Junior is relatively educated, relies on her brains and common sense to stay alive, and knows that her mind is her way out. Heed, on the other hand, is ignorant (through no fault of her own, of course), relies on manipulation and deceit to get by and, being a misguided child, mistakenly believes that her marriage to Cosey is her way out. She doesn't realize that she's been pulled out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.
But the saga continues and, as time goes on, it becomes clear that Junior has been hired for more clandestine purposes. She eventually takes matters into her own hands, but not before taking up with Romen, who genuinely transforms her with the love she so desperately desires. Fortunately for Junior, as well as Heed and Christine, Romen is a true and upright soul, as evidenced throughout the novel, particularly at the beginning, when in a miraculous turn of events, he saves a girl during a disturbing gang rape. We can thank Romen's grandparents, Sandler and Vida Gibbons, for guiding his decent behavior.
Romen's relationship with his grandparents, Sandler especially, reflects one of the book's main themes: the importance of communication. Sandler knows how to effectively communicate with his grandson and, as a result, plays a significant role in his development into a strong human being. In the end, Romen and his actions become an example of the goodness that can evolve when people take the time to carefully and lovingly express themselves. If only some of the other characters had followed suit, there might not have been so much heartache.
In all, Love is a beautifully executed piece of work, even down to it's red-wine colored cover and elegant gold lettering. It finishes on a powerful and surprising note, reminding me of Morrison's distinct talent for hiding clues in plain sight and keeping key facts under wraps until the last minute. This is the second novel of hers that she describes as "perfect" (the first is Jazz), and with it, Morrison adds yet another brilliant classic to her collection. | January 2004
Nicole Moses is an author, a poet and a songstress. Devouring books and expressing herself creatively through words are her true passions in life. She lives in Montreal, Canada with her fiance, James, and a scraggly monkey named Homegrown.