Jul 26, 2010

Love by Toni Morrison

Love by Toni Morrison

The beginning of Toni Morrison’s Love put me in mind of a Gothic novel: decayed old house, check. A slight touch of the supernatural, check. Old family secrets that are gradually revealed, check. Intelligent use of Gothic tropes to tell an unforgettable story, check. “So,” I found myself thinking, “This is what the rest of Mary Cat and Constance’s lives from We Have Always Lived in the Castle were like”. Heed and Christine, known as the Cosey Girls, are two elderly woman who hate each other and live miserably together in a big decayed house they never leave. Not too far off is a boarded up hotel, the once prosperous Cosey Resort. The exact nature of the relationship of these two women with its late owner, Bill Cosey, is only revealed as the story progresses, as are the events that led to the current state of affairs between them.

The story is set in motion by the arrival of Junior, a young woman in dire need of a place to call home. Through a non-linear narrative that uses multiple points of view, Toni Morrison tells a riveting story about lost love, intrigues and manipulation, class, gender and race, the civil rights movement and the history of “coloured businesses”, and sexual double standards. As the details add up, the story becomes increasingly layered and complex, truth changes shape, and what is really at the heart of Love is slowly revealed.

Bill Cosey, we are told early in the novel, was a man universally loved. He was loved because he managed to be reassuringly successful while working within a system that perpetuated injustice. He was known to be generous and not an unkind man, and yet—and yet the truth of what people were willing to forgive him becomes more and more difficult to accept as we learn the truth of the facts. I found myself constantly wondering, how did he get away with it all? Personal charm? The immense benefits (for someone like him) of what people are predisposed to believe when it comes to men and women? Or is it simply that he was a comforting example for those too despondent to be able to face the idea of having to fight segregation, especially after all the other fights in their lives? If Bill Cosey could do good in a cruel and segregated world, they may have thought, perhaps they could too. Of course, sooner or later everyone had to face the real cost of his success.

One of the main themes of Love, and one of the reasons why I connected with it so strongly, is gender, the hypocrisy of sexual double standards, and the social tolerability of sexual violence – be it when it’s perpetuated by teenage boys (who will, as they say, “be boys”), by men in positions of authority at correctional schools, or by those powerful enough to be able to acquire child-brides. Love reminded me a little of Tender Morsels in its questioning of traditional masculinity, of the role violence plays in it, and of the consequences this has for women and men alike – and needless to say, I loved it for it.

There’s a crushing scene in which a character saves a teenage girl who has been tied up and is being gang-raped at a party. This scene, though difficult to read, is a perfect illustration the unflinching honesty with which Love deals with the aforementioned themes. After he rescues her, this boy can barely look at the girl. He was moved to untie her and take her away because for a moment he couldn’t not acknowledge her humanity, but the truth is that he also can’t acknowledge it for too long, because not acknowledging it is part of the very identity he’s trying to adopt. And once the deed is done, he feels nothing but self-loathing for having failed to live up to a certain model of masculinity. As he very well knows, the consequences of this failure will have to be faced – in the form of beatings and the loss of any social status he ever had – before the day is even out.

The love the title of the novel refers to is not exactly what you imagine as you start reading it. The moment when all the pieces of the story fit together and everything becomes crystal clear is incredibly moving: this is a story about two people who were driven apart despite all the things they had in common; who grew to see each other as enemies rather than as victims of similar circumstances; who were stripped bare of the love that once united them. How different their lives could have been if this hadn’t happened. Most moving of all is the story of how their silence began – of what Morrison calls “the birth of sin”. Such a common misunderstanding for girls everywhere, and so absolutely lethal in its consequences.

I apologise for my vagueness, but as you can imagine there’s a lot about Love I don’t want to give away. But make sure you read it – this is a beautifully written, incredibly moving and very powerful novel. Somewhat to my surprise, it’s my favourite Toni Morrison to date.

I read Love along with three lovely book bloggers: Claire at Paperback Reader, Steph at Step & Tony Investigate, and Claire at Kiss a Cloud. Click over to their blogs to read their thoughts on the book.

Favourite passages:
The one time Sandler was invited to one of Cosey’s famous boat parties, he promised himself afterwards that he would never go again. Not just because of the company, although he was uncomfortable being jovial with middle-aged white men, one of whom was holstered; the well-to-do black men also made him feel out of place. The laughter was easy enough. And the three or four women stimulating it were pleasant. It was the talk, its tone, that he wouldn’t take. Talk as fuel to feed the main delusion: the counterfeit world invented on the boat; the real one set aside for a few hours so women could dominate, men could crawl, blacks could insult whites. Until they docked. Then the sheriff would put his badge back on and call the colored physician a boy. Then the women took their shoes off because they had to walk home alone.

Vida, in her tale of wickedness, had not said a word about Bill Cosey. She acted as though Heed had chased and seduced a fifty-two-year-old man, older than her father. That she had chosen to marry him rather than being told to. Vida, like most people, probably resented the child because she stayed married to him, liked it, and took over his business. In their minds she was born a liar, a gold digger unable to wait for her twelfth birthday for pay dirt. They forgave Cosey. Everything. Even to the point of blaming a child for a grown man’s interest in her. What was she supposed to do? Run away’ Where? Was there someplace Cosey or Wilbur Johnson couldn’t reach?

Fruit shook his head, mourning human stupidity and retrograde politics. Yet mourn was all he did. Regardless of her urging, “speaking to”—not to mention “punish” or “expel”—he never got around to. Yes, Fruit thought the Comrade a menace, but he could not tell him so. Yes, he believed the Comrade jeopardised their principled cause, but he could not confront him. The girl’s violation carried no weight against the sturdier violation of male friendship. Fruit could upbraid, expel, beat up a traitor, a coward, or any jive turkey over the slightest offence. But not this one—this assault against a girl of seventeen was not even a hastily added footnote to his list of Unacceptable Behaviour since the raped one did not belong to him. Christine did the racial equation: the rapee is black and the raper white; both are black; both are white. Which combination influenced Fruit’s decision? It would have helped if the other girls’ moans of sympathy for the raped one had not been laced with disturbing questions: What did she do? Why didn’t she…?”

It wasn’t the arousals, not altogether unpleasant, that the girls could not talk about. It was the other thing. The thing that made each believe, without knowing why, that this particular shame was different and could not tolerate speech—not even in the language they had invented for secrets.
Would the dirtiness inside leak?
Now, exhausted, drifting towards a maybe permanent sleep, they don’t speak of the birth of sin. Idagay can’t help them with that.
Other opinions: cardigangirlverity

(Yours?)

35 comments:

Eva said...

NOw I know which Morrison I'm reading next!

*runs over to put a library hold on it*

Alessandra @Out of the Blue said...

Sounds interesting. I'll have to give it a try, although I haven't been able to finish a Morrison book so far :(

Bina said...

I wrote my BA thesis about this book (about partiarchy)! It´s such an amazing book, although I still haven´t recovered enough to read more Morrison ;)

Ladytink_534 said...

Her book The Bluest Eye was the first audiobook I ever listened to. It's the only one I've read by her but I did make sure my mom read it too. She's a great author.

chasingbawa said...

I've never read any Toni Morrison yet... This looks interesting, especially the subject matter which is still relevant today. Great review!

Vivienne said...

I love the beginning sound of this at the beginning.The gothic feel of it, but the rape scene has put me off a bit. I really struggle to read things like that. I did enjoyed Beloved by Morrison, but I haven't ventured into any of her other books. I shall have to think about this one.

Debi said...

'“So,” I found myself thinking, “This is what the rest of Mary Cat and Constance’s lives from We Have Always Lived in the Castle were like”.'--You had me sold right there. But then you went and made it so much more. I have honest-to-goodness tears flowing down my face right now. I'd never even heard of this book before (and I haven't yet read any of her books), but now I know I must have it. Must. It doesn't sound like an easy read, but it sounds like a necessary one.

Zibilee said...

I just read Steph's review of this one and coupled with yours, I must say that I am more than curious about this book now. I haven't yet read any Morrison, but do have a copy of Beloved on my shelf. I am going to have to add this one to my collection as well. I am glad you loved the book!

bermudaonion said...

I've never tried Toni Morrison's work, but I'm jotting this title down as the one to start with.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've never read her either, which is almost shameful. I now know which book I should start with.

Amanda said...

Oh gosh. This demonstrates for me more than ever why I have never read Toni Morrison and am scared to...

Steph said...

I'm so glad this was such a rewarding read for you. I really loved the way Morrison took what started off feeling as a rather conventional story and turned it on her head. As I said in my review, I thought it was actually rather brilliant how she took a topic like love and told a story so dark.

amckiereads said...

I've been hearing so much about Morrison and this novel sounds great. Definitely going on my wish list.

Andi said...

I am sadly underread when it comes to Morrison's body of work. I read The Bluest Eye several years ago and really appreciated that story. I read Beloved when I was too young and silly to "get" it. I really had no idea what Love was about, but now I'm intrigued. I venture to guess it'll be the next Morrison I try.

Trisha said...

Sounds like a powerful read; so dark and yet so important.

claire said...

That paragraph you wrote about Romen and the girl he rescued explains so much! The preface (or was it foreword?) for me reflected that plus the life of Heed.

It's funny how we both used the term "the birth of sin" in our posts. When that phrase came out in the book, it really struck me because isn't that what propels anyone's life to teeter into destruction? It is just so sad to think that Heed and Christine were too young to know how to handle that event..

By the way, I can totally see how you would describe her beginning as gothic.. I can see that too.. I was trying to think of an apt description and you nailed it.

I'm so glad that this novel spoke to you personally.. I think you'll love all her other works as well..

Emily said...

I read this years ago and, I think, at the wrong time - while I loved the atmosphere and could tell I would really be connecting with the characters & situations if I caught the novel at the right time, there was something off about my brain while I was reading it and it didn't make as much of an impression as it should have. I sometimes find with her books that I'm not sure how I feel about them until I really sit down and think about them, and I didn't bother with this one - obviously as mistake, as your review shows! I'll have to revisit it...luckily it's one I own, so I can go back at any time. :-)

Emidy said...

I haven't read anything by Morrison at all! I've got to try Love, though. I'm sure it's a difficult read at times, but like you said, very powerful. Fantastic review!

theliteraryomnivore said...

I've only read Beloved. This sounds wonderful, but I do need to space my Morrison out- it's so good it's almost like a sledge hammer to the head, you know?

pickygirlfoodfilmfiction said...

Like Bina, I wrote part of my thesis on Sula. However, I can't get enough of her. I haven't read all of her, though, because I don't want to not have any more Toni Morrison to read.

I do have Love, though, and plan for it to be my next. I just read The Bluest Eye last month, so I'll probably wait for a bit.

Beautiful, beautiful. Thanks for including those passages.

Memory said...

I actually picked this up at the library yesterday, but ended up putting it back (not because I didn't want to read it, but because I already have lots of books out). Toni Morrison is one of my lifetime reading project authors; I want to get through all her books, but I know they're not the sorts of things I can read on a frequent basis. I've read four so far, and plan to stretch the others out over the next few years.

Kathleen said...

I'm hanging my head in shame right now because I've yet to read a single Toni Morrison novel and while I had Beloved on my list for several years, I had never even heard of this one. This sounds like a powerful story that would have me wanting to discuss it with someone else.

Stephanie said...

I had mixed feelings about the other Toni Morrison novels I read, many years ago, but you have me interested in reading this one. It sounds incredibly rich.

Melody said...

Can you believe that I have yet to read anything by this author?! That said, I've heard lot of rave reviews about her books and I can't wait to read Beloved since I've this book in my pile. I'm waiting for the mood to strike, as you know, hehe.

Chris said...

I don't know why I still haven't read any Toni Morrison. From your first sentence in this review this book sounds absolutely amazing and the topics that it focuses on are all things that I love to read about in a book...so why does she scare me so much?! I just have to do it!

ds said...

I love Toni Morrison's novels, and I missed this one. Am going to fix that! Great review, thank you.

savidgereads said...

I saw Claire's review of this and your post has only added to how much I want to read this. I loved the checklist at the start in particular.

I haven't read any Morrison yet but I do have 'Love' on the TBR so I will get to this one sharpish.

Nymeth said...

Eva: I think you'll like it a lot. It's the most explicitly feminist of the books of hers I've read to date.

Alessandra: Aw, I'm sorry to hear it :( Which ones did you try?

Bina: What a fascinating topic for a thesis! I bet you had lots and lots to say.

Jen: She really is. I haven't read The Bluest Eye yet, but I want to read everything of hers eventually.

Sakura: I find that's the case with all of her books, even the ones that are historical fiction. (I guess this one is too, but one of the storylines is contemporary).

Vivienne: I hope you won't avoid it because of that - I promise it's not graphic or exploitative in the least.

Debi: You'll LOVE this. I promise. It reminded me of TM in more ways than one.

Zibilee: Beloved is also absolutely excellent. It's hard to go wrong with Morrison!

Kathy and Sandy, I do think it'd be a great intro :)

Amanda: You mean because of the violence? I'm not sure if it helps, but it's more implied than graphic.

Steph: That was indeed brilliant. I was very happy that all four of us enjoyed it so much, and it was fascinating to see how we approached it from different angles.

Amy, you'll love it! As you can tell, it's full of feminist themes.

Andi: I actually am too - this is only my third! I need to read more ASAP.

Trisha: Yes, absolutely.

Nymeth said...

Claire: I found the scene in which she used that expression so incredibly moving. And while I think that their being so young actually helped, sadly even grown women are likely to think they're to blame in similar circumstances :\

Emily: That was more or less what happened with me and Jazz. I liked it a lot, but I never connected with it as much as I felt I should have because it just wasn't the right time. Definitely one to try again!

Emidy: It is difficult, and yet for all its darkness it's a beautiful beautiful book.

Clare: I know just what you mean, and that's a perfect way to put it!

pickygirl: You're most welcome! Sula might be my next Morrison, as it's one that really appeals to me.

Memory: I completely understand needing to space them! I want to read them all too, but I'll take my time.

Kathleen: It's never too late! And yes, this is the kind of book you'll want to discuss. I was very lucky to be able to join a group read!

Stephanie, which ones did you read?

Melody: It's definitely best to wait until the right mood to read Beloved. It's an amazing novel, but a demanding one too.

Chris: Yes you do! Really, there's nothing here not to love.

ds: I hope you love it as much as her others!

Simon: I hope you'll enjoy it as much as the four of us did!

coffeestainedpages said...

I have yet to read any Toni Morrison, but maybe I should start with this one. It sounds very emotionally complex and moving.

Chris said...

I just saw your response to Debi :D I think that's all I need to read this one! I just got it from Paperback Swap ;)

Emily said...

This book sounds amazing. I am definitely going to put it near the top of my TBR pile! Thank you for writing such a fantastic review.

Violet said...

I read this book when I was in school, well at least half of it. I dont remember a lot except that I did not like it. May be I was too young to understand it, I might give it a try again since I own it.

Trish said...

I actually haven't heard of this one by her--or maybe I just don't recognize the cover. I've read a few Morrison books and liked them all (all in different ways). This one actually kind of reminds me a little of Beloved in the themes--although definitely not gothic. Have you read any others by her? I'll definitely be on the lookout for this one!

Alice Teh said...

I haven't read any of Morrison's works too (arghhh!). I think I have one of her books in my pile somewhere but it's not this one. I want to read this too.