Love is a novel about women who stew in long-undead hatreds, unforgotten recriminations, and a man dead but not relinquished. In one scene, L., the novel’s teeth-sucking Greek chorus, pinpoints their conundrum exactly: “The problem … is what to do about revenge—how to escape the sweetness of its rot. You can see why families make the best enemies. They have time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer. Shortsighted, though. What good does it do to keep a favorite hate going when the very person you’ve poisoned your life with is the one (maybe the only one) able or willing to carry you to the bathroom when you can’t get there on your own?”
This monologue from Love is just one of a few moments when author Toni Morrison steps forward to frame the action. For the remaining pages, the reader is left adrift in a sea of ghosts, chasing the vapor trail of truth about a charming and rich hotel-owner named Bill Cosey, who turned the shambling hotel into a place where blacks could dress well and dance, musicians could enter through the front door, and gambling could take place without the threat of violence. Before its demise, the place was famous.
Although the novel begins in 1975, most of its action takes place in the decades prior, when blacks in the South were struggling for civil rights and then rioting for them and then uneasy with how to exercise them. The women in Cosey’s life all represent different positions on that timeline. There’s May, Cosey’s daughter, who toiled to make his hotel a place so beautiful and solid that institutionalized white hatred would be invisible. Christine, Cosey’s granddaughter, grew up in the auspices of this hard-won largesse but somehow wound up poor and destitute, rich in rights but deprived of them all. Heed is Cosey’s second wife, taken at age 11, whose life goal is to make Christine know her place.
Overlooking the action is L., the heart and soul of this novel if there is one. At the beginning or end of each chapter, she riffs on the loose morals of the younger women and the concrete-hearted stubbornness of the older ones. This is an awfully high road to take in romance, but it’s understandable given the firefights we witness in Love. It would take several thousand words to untangle the plotlines of who hates whom and why—not to mention ruin the mystery of watching Morrison ravel and then unravel them—but suffice it to say these grudges are serious. There are arson attempts and scratching brawls, knives displayed and testaments betrayed.
As Morrison rotates from one character to another, depicting them in the present and then in the past through the eyes of their enemies, the meaning of “love” deepens, darkens. Love of family in this book often counters love of a man; love of a man often turns familial love to hatred. This is not life but war. As a result, the language is appropriately lyrical, almost baroque. Water in all its various forms—ice, vapor, rain and snow—appears and reappears in this book like a talisman. All of this hatred will be washed away someday, but not yet. The moon, a tide-governing and mind-troubling force, appears throughout, too, speaking to characters with spooky intimacy.
This sense of singularity is what causes all the problems in Love. Each woman felt as though Cosey were hers, when in reality, he belonged only to himself. That doesn’t stop this cast from fighting for the tiniest foothold, nor us from caring. Amazingly, gracefully, Love entices us inexorably to wade into its blue-deep waters; like the moon with the ocean waves, it tells us when we can wash back ashore.