(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Toni Morrison has dealt with the complexities of love before—parental love, love between friends, romantic love, even supernatural love. Its need and its absence seem to be at the heart of every novel she has written, from her very first, The Bluest Eye (1970), through Paradise(1998). This incarnation of Love, her brief, intricate eighth novel, begins with a monologue, a soft, reassuring woman’s voice that introduces both characters and setting. The voice belongs to L, a chef and “an old woman embarrassed by the world.” An important fixture in this world, she has been around so long that no one remembers her full name anymore, although she will eventually reveal it to the reader. She holds all the secrets: She is the Chorus, the Wise Woman from Up Beach, the area where the poorest black folks live. L is able to bridge the distance between present and past as if they are one; her hum begins and ends the novel.

The most important character is Bill Cosey, once a powerful and respected man; the title of each chapter names one of the many roles he fills. Without him there would be no story, yet he is never really there. Viewed only through the eyes or thoughts of those who remember him, Cosey represents the past. His ghost pervades the book, and his influence continues to affect the present. Tall, handsome, rich, Cosey adores his first wife, who thinks far less of him when she discovers that his wealth comes from a police informer, his father, Dark Cosey. Dark worshiped money and was willing to sink to whatever level needed to acquire it, but he spent very little. When Bill Cosey inherits this blood money, he rejects his father’s greed and determines instead to spend his inheritance on everything the father despised: clothes, food, music, pleasure. He is generous with his money—or not, depending on who is speaking. Neither plaster saint nor scoundrel, he is both.

Pursuing his interests, Cosey buys a decaying whites-only club on the humid eastern seaboard and transforms it into a deluxe hotel and resort for well-to-do African Americans. L, who cooks for him nearly fifty years, is the hotel chef. Cosey takes local people out of the low-wage shellfish cannery at Up Beach and offers them better jobs and a more prosperous economy, even though his hotel does not welcome them except as employees. By the 1940’s the genial, popular Cosey is a widower, and Cosey’s Hotel and Resort is famous nationwide as “the best good time this side of the law,” attracting excellent jazz and decorous gambling.

The Cosey women revolve around him like satellites. The first is his daughter-in-law, May, the widow of his only son, who died young of walking pneumonia and left May with their daughter, Christine. When Cosey temporarily withdraws from the world to mourn his boy, L and May run the hotel in his place. May continues to devote her life to Cosey, allowing L to raise Christine. In later years Christine will harbor a great deal of anger toward her grandfather, believing that he consistently ignored her in favor of her former friend, Heed the Night Johnson.

When these two little girls first meet on the beach, Christine invites Heed for ice cream. They are soon best friends, although May never approves, despising the poor, illiterate Johnsons. However, the girls’ friendship falters when Cosey, in a sudden infatuation with eleven-year-old Heed, announces that he is going to marry her. Naïve little Heed, too dark-skinned ever to dance in the Cotton Club, is sold by her father for two hundred dollars and a new pocketbook. Both May and Christine (who will become her best friend’s granddaughter by marriage) resist the union to the point of hiding Heed’s wedding gown. Soon jealous Christine runs away from home, to a wild and difficult life. The broken friendship, the shift in the two girls’ relationship, is at the heart of a lifetime of bitterness.

Many other women grace Cosey’s life, all of them tangential except one: the beautiful, scarred Celestial, always glimpsed on the horizon and never quite real. Celestial, who comes from a long line of sporting women and is fiercely independent, has an ongoing affair with Cosey and is the only woman to whom he ever feels truly connected. Although everyone is aware of Celestial, and the adult Heed even knows that Cosey dreams of her, no one wants to mention her directly. As children,...

(The entire section is 1788 words.)