July 9, 2004


In the name of love
by Rhiannon Ross

"What's in a name?" Juliet asks Romeo. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Her rationale may suffice for flowers and surnames but as the tragic lovers soon learn, love defies such simple definition. Toni Morrison plucks each pretty but deceiving petal from this exploited word in her latest novel, Love (Knopf, 2003) exposing its equally treacherous thorns.

Love is a story about a battle for family fortune between two North Carolina crones. But at its core, exists a betrayal so deep, two women so profoundly scarred, they are left in the final days of their lives to pick at surface wounds.

A ghostly woman nicknamed "L" narrates. She yearns for a tale about how "brazen women take a good man down." We soon learn this is mere wishful thinking, for what we get is a tragedy about how a brazen man takes a lot of good women down.
In the Big Band era, L was a chef at a resort that catered to middle-class African Americans. But now, Cosey's Hotel and Resort stands amidst a "treasury of sea junk" at Sooker Bay. It's "sort of standing," explains L. "Looks more like it's rearing backwards — away from hurricanes and a steady blow of sand."

An apt metaphor for Christine and Heed Cosey, the two women forced by circumstances to cohabit in a crumbling mansion located on Monarch Street. Bill Cosey, revered hotel and resort owner, built the home so his family could escape the downwind stench of the local cannery.
Back in the '40s, Christine and Heed were childhood playmates spooning peaches and ice cream on the beach. Then Christine's grandfather (Cosey) claimed 11-year-old Heed as his second wife.

"One day we built castles on the beach; next day he sat her in his lap," says Christine.
As disturbing as it is that Cosey takes a child bride — although he's "gentleman" enough to wait until she begins her menstrual cycle before consummating their marriage — it is just as disturbing that all of the women Morrison introduces in Love idealize this man who repeatedly makes unethical choices. As one neighbor muses, "They forgave Cosey. Everything. Even to the point of blaming a child for a grown man's interest in her."

The only woman who manages to escape his tentacles is a mysterious woman known only as Celestial…who is also a prostitute. And since she's unattainable, Cosey defines his desire for her as real love. He expresses his love for all other women in his life through financial support.
Morrison seeks to avoid stereotyping the nature of love by illustrating its contradictions in her characters' lives. There is infatuation ("that magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling"), sexual ("the clown of love") and mature ("softly, without props"), as well as the fragile bonds of family and friendship.

And just as there are different kinds of "love," Morrison also wants us to know that there are different kinds of slavery. When Christine tells Heed, "Well, it's like we started out being sold, got free of it, then sold ourselves to the highest bidder." Heed asks, "Who you mean 'we'? Black people? Women? You mean me and you?"

Love isn't perfect; there are some choppy transitions. But this may be indicative of Morrison's commitment to follow the natural flow of her characters' thoughts, which are not always chronological. And while the beginning two-thirds of the novel is well developed, the story resolves itself much too quickly, almost as if Morrison suddenly grew weary of these tragic women's lives and chose to put them, and us, out of misery.

With so much venom in the story, one also may wonder if Morrison's title isn't misstated. But the opposite of love is indifference. And Morrison's characters are anything but. Their emotions, like the all-consuming but fickle ocean, are facets of this thing — for lack of a better name — we call love.

Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at


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