Toni Morrison's `Love': the party's over

October 19, 2003|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Love, by Toni Morrison. Knopf. 208 pages. $23.95.

The Cosey women are like sea glass, hardened by their emotional shipwrecks and fused in their storm-tossed, mutual infatuation with one charismatic man. Thus is their fate sealed in Love, Toni Morrison's new novel, set in the faded glory of an ocean-side resort for the black upper-class, a remnant of segregated America.

A list of the main characters would suggest formula romance: There's the patriarch, so revered in the community that his amorality is tolerated; his kleptomaniac daughter-in-law; his insecure bride and his granddaughter, best friends who become bitter rivals; a con artist and her teen lover; a mistress whose presence haunts the beach.

Instead, they inhabit a tightly constructed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, narrated in the voice of the hotel's longtime cook, who knows everyone's secrets and harbors a few of her own. The women bear their obsessions to the grave and - after all, this is Morrison - beyond.

Readers who've considered Morrison's past works enigmatic, what with her preference for nonlinear story lines, flashbacks and convoluted genealogies, will find the basic plot of Love faster and more accessible, but the storytelling no less cerebral.

It's a profound commentary on the power of love. What each woman wants from Bill Cosey, and what she gets (or takes), adds to mounting tension. Love can uplift or corrupt. It can create memories, and ghosts. And sometimes, it crystallizes as an impulse interchangeable with hate.

"A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick," summarizes the grumpy, nostalgic cook, herself a one-time worshipper of the skirt-chasing Mr. Cosey. She delivers a stream of observations on the habits of the privileged few and their low-country neighbors, and on the changing American mores and expectations for women she has witnessed. And into this stewpot, she drops nuggets of truth that keep the plot moving - a series of shocking insights that continue up through the novel's final pages, forcing readers to keep re-calibrating their judgment of the Coseys and their slice of ocean paradise sandwiched between heaven and hell.

The cook explains the women best: "First they disappointed him, then they defied him, then they turned his home into a barrel of quarreling she-crabs and his life's work into a cautionary lesson in black history."

The Cosey resort evokes the bittersweet nostalgia of a generation that saw some of its institutions decline with the end of segregation. Its decline mirrors that of many of black America's storied resorts, such as American Beach in Florida. The Civil Rights Movement opened doors, expanding the options available to the moneyed class, who no longer needed the once-segregated facilities.

So the readers also witness the death of the Cosey dream: The resort is described in flashbacks, from its heyday in the 1940s as a getaway for famous jazz stars and black professionals, to its demise. By the 1990s, the party's over, and the hotel stands empty, sand-whipped and peeling, held up mostly by memories: "You can find the prettiest shells right up on the steps, like scattered petals or cameos from a Sunday dress, and you wonder how they got there, so far from the ocean."

Morrison's exquisite writing brings the history and the heartache to life.

Jean Thompson is an associate editor of The Sun's editorial page, and a collector of African-American historical documents, books, photographs and music. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years.

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