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
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
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
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
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 Rhiannross@aol.com.