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26th July
2010
written by Steph

A few weeks (months?) ago, I had the good fortune to be asked to join Claire from Kiss A Cloud, Claire from Paperback Reader, and Nymeth from Things Mean A Lot in a little group read-along of Love by Toni Morrison. I was thrilled for the opportunity because Toni Morrison is an author whom I feel I can always stand to read more of, but rarely feel confident enough to do so on my own prodding. Still, I’ve dutifully gone out and procured as many copies of her various books that I can find (my only requirement being that they are not horrifically ugly, because there are some less than covet-worthy editions of her books floating about out there) during my frequent bookstore visits. I then proceed to stockpile these books, happy in the knowledge that I have more Toni Morrison ahead of me. But of course, books are meant to be read, and it’s always good when others remind me of this, so this was the push I needed to get back on the Morrison love train (no pun intended, as I didn’t capitalize the “L” in “love”). I’m not sure that if given my own druthers that Love would have been the next Morrison I would have attempted, simply because I still haven’t read Beloved, which is Morrison’s masterpiece and I know I need to read it. So I always say it will be my next read, and then, well, as you can see, it isn’t! That said, I’m really glad that I did read Love because it was a really interesting and compelling novel, and it certainly broadened my notion of who Toni Morrison is as an author in several ways. I’m sure there are people out there who read Toni Morrison novels for plot, but I don’t think I’m really one of them. Don’t get me wrong – she writes a mean story with all the requisite parts, but for me, reading Morrison has always been all about the writing and the ideas. Still, I suppose if you’re going to talk about the actual story, Love might be your best bet, since it’s certainly the most conventional (or perhaps traditional is a better word?) of the three Morrison novels I’ve read to date. Love is, of course, first and foremost, a love story. It takes place in one of those little seaside towns where everybody knows each other’s business and family’s go generations back. One of the things that gave this town its prominence during its heyday was Bill Cosey’s hotel, which was one of the most prosperous and popular holiday spots, regardless of the color of the owner’s (or his clienteles’) skin. Cosey’s long dead, but the women who gravitated around him during his life still haunt his home, all of them but hollow husks of their former selves. At the center of this axis of obsession spin Christine, Cosey’s granddaughter, and Heed, Cosey’s second widow, locked in a seemingly tireless feud as to who will ultimately wield the power of Cosey’s estate. The years have not been kind to either woman, as a bond once pure has curdled into something hard and sour. Both are fixated on one upping the other and being named victorious, but it’s clear time is running out for both. It won’t be long before they are each reunited with Cosey… The first thing that struck me about Love was how straightforward (more or less) the plot seemed. Yes, there was some initial confusion as narrators switch and the backstory behind Heed and Christine’s feud is doled out slowly and not necessarily in chronological order, so there is some piecing together of parts, turning them about in your mind so you can figure out how they all fit together. Such is the joy of reading a Morrison novel. But for me, I felt that this jigsaw puzzle was less complicated than previous novels like A Mercy and Song of Solomon, in part because the central conceit of a love story seemed to simplify things. I suppose I don’t really equate Morrison novels with notions of lover spats and jealous rages, so to find that was the distilled essence of this novel (regardless of the title) was surprising. I just thought the story was largely rather simple, though by this I do not mean it was not complicated. I think the thing that is most surprising about this book is that for a novel entitled Love, it is a book that feels quite cold at times and often seems to be poking and the dark bits of human beings that seem the polar opposite of love. Initially there is so much mistrust and anger coursing through the book, that you would be hard pressed to find the love story in it. But then again, there is Toni Morrison for you, because as much as love can restore and nourish, it can clearly take on a destructive power that is not always positive. Certainly that is the reading one would take if one focused on the relationship between Heed and Christine in relation to Cosey. But I think the central love relationship is the one between those two women with each other, how their relationship morphed over time and the roles between the two slowly reversed. How all their rage stemmed from the worry they had lost one another to Cosey and he had supplanted each woman in the other’s heart. I can’t say why, but I just think it was infinitely more interesting for Morrison to have the story pivot around these two women, rather than have it be a more straightforward love story between a man and a woman. As much as I believe Morrison can write with beauty and grace, it felt more rewarding to have her plunge into murkier depths and provide us with a dark and sad story with love at its core. Reading Love was kind of like reading a Margaret Atwood novel and reminded me at times of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. It was like no Toni Morrison novel I’ve ever read before, both in terms of its construction and as well as the writing. While still lyrical and poetic, the prose felt much more accessible and far less hazy than other bits of Morrison’s writing I’ve encountered in the past. For that reason, I’d say people who are generally intimidated by Morrison might be well-advised to start here, but then again, I’m not sure that I feel it’s completely representative of the what you’re likely to experience when reading any of her other books. That said, ever book by Morrison that I’ve encountered has had it’s own unique signature to it, and I’d be hard pressed to confuse any of the books by her that I’ve read. Perhaps she’s one of those insanely gifted writers who is able to morph her style with every piece she writes, her own canon an ever-evolving testament to her prowess. That actually sounds about right to me. If writing were a professional sport, I’d always put my money on Morrison being the one to beat. Every time I read something by her, she challenges me to reconsider my own notions of what the limitations on fiction can be. I love the way I feel when I’m reading a Toni Morrison novel; it always feels like reading in its purest form, where language is unadulterated and unfettered. This is probably the first novel I’ve read by Morrison where I felt like I largely grasped its important concepts the first time through, but even with that in mind, I’m sure I’d still benefit from re-reading it again in the future. But for now, I’ll go see what my fellow readers took away from this volume and look forward to my next encounter with Morrison, now with a lighter heart. Also, special thanks to my co-readers, Claire, Claire & Nymeth for having me along for the ride! Rating: 4 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. The only Morrison I’ve read is Beloved and I was very confused. I loved it in the end, but it was hard work. It is good to know that this is easier to follow. I might try this one Morrison next.

  2. 07/26/2010

    I recently bought a copy of Beloved at the used bookstore and have been wondering when I will get the time to read it. I remember reading that you were really impressed with her writing, but also that it could be very difficult at times. I think I am up for the challenge and will be really interested in seeing what I think of my first Morrison. I am glad that this was such a good read for you and that it was largely straightforward.

    I also wanted to let you know that I read Disgrace yesterday after remembering how strong of an impression it left on you and Tony. I have to say, it blew me away, just as you predicted!!

  3. […] read along with three favourite bloggers, Claire of Kiss a Cloud, Steph of Steph and Tony Investigate and Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot; you can read their eloquent views by clicking on their blog links. […]

  4. 07/26/2010

    Steph, I love that we all took something away from this novel. I’m with you on so many levels. But I do feel that this is in fact totally representative of her style. The feeling of being juggled about like pieces in puzzle is so like her. I agree with you though that this is much more straightforward than either Song of Solomon or Beloved, that’s for sure. The story is really simple. It’s how she wove it to be able to entangle the reader in is what’s impressive. (I’ve a feeling you’ll love The Bluest Eye.)

    Still have question looming about in my head.. 😀

  5. 07/26/2010

    “I love the way I feel when I’m reading a Toni Morrison novel; it always feels like reading in its purest form, where language is unadulterated and unfettered.”

    This – right here – I’ve never been able to put into words. I absolutely love Toni Morrison, and though I haven’t read this book, I would say that Toni Morrison always addresses “love” in this manner. As she says in The Bluest Eye, “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”

  6. 07/27/2010

    I can definitely see what you mean with the comparison to Atwood. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s so true. I thought that the relationship between Heed and Christine was the main love story at the core of the book too, and it broke my heart to think how different their lives could have been if circumstances hadn’t driven them apart. Thank YOU for reading along with us! I love the fact that reading everyone’s different thoughts and perspectives is making me appreciate the book all the more.

  7. 07/27/2010

    @ Jackie: Yes, I’ve heard that Beloved is quite a bemusing read, which is perhaps why I’ve held off reading it. I’m so scared I’ll be completely lost! I think you’d really like this one a good deal; it’s definitely not all that confusing, and really felt very accessible.
     
    @ zibilee: So glad to hear you finally found the time for Disgrace! I’m really looking forward to reading your thoughts on it! And I can’t wait for you to have your first Toni Morrison experience!
     
    @ claire: You’ve read different Morrison works than I have, so perhaps you have a different perspective on what her style generally is like. For me, I found this more similar to A Mercy (which makes sense since she wrote this just before), but quite different from Song of Solomon. I guess I just need to read more Morrison to see where this one fits in!
     
    @ jenn: What a wonderful quote! I haven’t read The Bluest Eye yet, but that snippet has certainly whet my appetite for it… Must find a copy soon!
     
    @ Nymeth: It’s been so rewarding to see how our experiences and responses to the book overlap, but also how we each focused on slightly different things too! I thought this was such a thoughtful and provocative novel, and I’m so glad I got to experience it along with you!

  8. 07/27/2010

    This is the one Morrison novel that I have not read but cheered to see from all of you that it does not disappoint. My favorite is Song of Solomon and think that it would be very difficult to de-throne that one from the top of my list.

  9. 07/28/2010

    @ Frances: I am not sure that Toni Morrison has it in her to disappoint! I have read Song of Solomon, but it was my first Morrison, and I’m sure so much of it went over my head. It’s on the list of books to some day re-read.

  10. 07/28/2010

    I read Morrison for the lyrical beauty and the writing. Like you, often I am proceeding with caution upon Morrison’s writing. I like to be lost in her sentences, re-reading, reflecting, and back-tracking through them until the plot seems less murky. The plot of this book seems very straight-forward, so un-Morrison. I would like to see how the story plays out between the two rivals.

  11. 07/29/2010

    @ Matt: I definitely felt this was a more straightforward Morrison read, but not everyone agrees with me, and regardless, it is still one of those book where you get lost in the words and the pages. I did find it less challenging than some of her other books, but certainly not less rewarding. I think you would love this one, Matt!

  12. JOE
    08/11/2010

    I am confused by the foreword. She is dead now. She is foisted up by her father. Whom is she? Christine or Heed?

  13. 08/11/2010

    @ JOE: I’m not sure exactly which bit of text you’re referring to, so unfortunately I’m of little help here!

  14. JOE
    08/11/2010

    @Steph: I am talking about foreword P3.”when we were all twelve or less, it seemed as though she floated behind a scrim. ” Who are we? Heed and Christine? Who is she? Christine?

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