In Love, Toni Morrison tackles the hardest questions, whether mysteries of the heart or social injustice, through the lens of love and, by extension, its opposite, hate. At its core is a multi-generational family drama revolving around a patriarch’s love, unfolding within dramatic twentieth-century US events. Set primarily in African American coastal communities, moving from the turn of the century through the 1960s, Love draws the reader into American social issues of injustice, racism, and institutionalized discrimination, along with efforts both to cope with and to solve them.
After Bill Cosey’s death, his children and grandchildren struggle to understand who he loved best in life and thus who will now inherit his legacy. The rivalries are more than squabbles; one character describes her relatives as “fire ants.” Bill had created a fabulous resort, uniquely available to and prized by African Americans; it is described as a “haven” more than a “playground.” The reader continues to wonder if the twisting vagaries of love, and the aftershocks from withholding it, will threaten that legacy enough to completely disintegrate the strained family. The political and social climate of the US occupies almost equal billing with the family saga, however. The symbol and the reality of Bill’s success via his resort-hotel, and the multifaceted effects of later desegregation on black prosperity, help to keep the social dimensions grounded.
Challenging social conventions was part of Bill’s attitude toward life, including taking an eleven-year-old girl, Heed, as his wife, and thus having a granddaughter, Christine, the same age as his wife. The long-lasting feud between his wife and granddaughter, vying after Bill's death not only for the inheritance but the love it represents, gives structure to a sometimes diffuse plot. If his mistress, Celestial, had been ostensibly the object of his love, she might find a way to gain her legacy as well. And those who are outside the family but deeply entrenched in the resort—notably its cook, named just L, whose reflections form a refrain—remind the reader of the continued pressure of class within sectors of society.
Although Bill is in many ways the backbone of the Cosey family, it is the impact of his life through the feelings and beliefs of his descendants and their families that dominate the book. Each of them struggles not only to forge their own path in life but also to understand—and sometimes deliberately reject—the weight of Bill’s troubled life. Chapter titles such as Friend, Benefactor, Lover, Husband, Guardian, and Father may refer specifically to dimensions of him, but it remains open if they are more symbolic than real. Because many of the characters present in the contemporary time period venture far beyond the often claustrophobic world of the resort, they bring different social issues back with them and ensure attention to the complex, racially charged environment of the times.
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...
(The entire section is 2,268 words.)