A Fierce Family Feud Spoils a Tainted Legacy

“Novelist” is too fragile a title for Toni Morrison. She’s more like a continent, or at least a landmass-solid, impregnable, a blunt fact. Book reviews won’t budge her: One can’t imagine her noticing them. Her indifference-even if it’s only an imagined indifference-

exposes the triviality of literary journalism. (Last week’s reverential profile in The New Yorker uselessly ratified her formidable stature; she’s too graceful to condescend, but you could tell that the whole exercise meant nothing to her.) Judging the merit of a new Toni Morrison novel in a newspaper or magazine is, in most respects, an inconsequential gesture: Thanks to the Nobel Prize she won a decade ago, her monolithic embodiment of the term “African-American woman writer,” and her three undeniably important novels- Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987)-the business of locating her proper place in the pantheon belongs to future generations.

But there’s still the immediate matter of consumer choice: Should you buy her new novel, and should you read it? Love is middling Morrison, more substantial than Jazz (1992), less portentous than Paradise (1998), nowhere near as bad as that awkward mess, Tar Baby (1981), and neither as sharp nor as painful as The Bluest Eye (1970). Unfortunately, Love resembles, in one crucial respect, her most perfect novel, Sula -both books introduce us to women who were unusually close when they were little girls but later became enemies-and the new novel suffers in comparison with Ms. Morrison’s masterpiece.

Love , of course, has lots to do with hate: in this case, the hate that spreads when a handful of women battle for the affection-and then the legacy-of a patriarch. Bill Cosey, founder of Cosey’s Hotel and Resort, is an outsized character, “a commanding, beautiful man,” a successful entrepreneur and “the county’s role model,” known for his “wide hospitality,” professional and otherwise, and his good works in the community. When we first hear about him, he seems almost improbably benevolent, but as we read on, a pattern of sordid behavior emerges and a shameful family secret comes to light; these revelations explain, in part, the hatred that “turned his home into a barrel of quarreling she-crabs and his life’s work into a cautionary lesson in black history.”

“Cosey’s Resort was more than a playground,” we’re told early on. Opened in the depths of the Depression, in its heyday it was “a fairy tale,” a “haven” for middle-class blacks, a “fabulous, successful resort controlled by one of their own.” We learn about the hotel only in flashbacks: It’s been shuttered for decades, the magic already long dead when Bill Cosey was buried in 1971.

At his funeral, Cosey’s second wife, Heed, and his granddaughter, Christine-the same two women who were childhood friends and later began feuding-fought each other over his coffin. (There was casket violence at a funeral in Jazz , too.) The new novel shuffles forward and backward, revealing in brief glimpses the ancient causes of the quarrel and leading us, in the end, to a truce that comes too late.

Behind the mystery of Heed and Christine’s feud-more than four decades of simmering animosity-lies another: Why did Cosey’s Resort fail? Was it ruined by the “quarreling she-crabs”? What else could have turned Bill Cosey’s seaside “paradise,” his “showplace,” into “a cautionary lesson in black history.” There were snakes in the garden-in fact, they slither all over the novel. Christine thinks of Heed as “a high-heeled snake”; when they confront one another, they’re “rigid vipers.” One character gives a friend “a baby cottonmouth curled in a bottle” and later has nightmares about “upright snakes on tiny feet.”

“Listen to me: something else was to blame.” So says L, the wise old crone who was once the hotel’s indispensable cook and who speaks (beautifully, like a Greek chorus) the first and last words in Love . My own guess is that the answer is snobbery. Cosey’s Resort was exclusive-its black clientele was sophisticated, distinguished. “[I]t had to be special: evening dress in the evening; sport clothes for sport. And no zoot suits. Flowers in the bedrooms, crystal on the table.” Local black folk were not invited: “none was truly welcome at the hotel’s tables or on its dance floor.” When a local girl, still a child-poor, dark-skinned, illiterate, from a shiftless family-becomes Bill Cosey’s second wife, it’s the beginning of the end. The excluded element, smuggled into the heart of the family, sows discord. As L puts it: “It was marrying Heed that laid the brickwork for ruination.”

A novel can’t do the cut-and-dried work of a sociological treatise, and shouldn’t try. But I found Love to be unnecessarily murky and complex-too many hurried flashbacks, too many layers of narration, too many half-exposed mysteries. Like Paradise , it bounces around in an irritating, obfuscating way. Instead of telling her story, Ms. Morrison plays peekaboo. Only the fraught relationship of Heed and Christine is satisfactorily resolved. Their reconciliation, though implausibly abrupt, is both happy and sad-and very moving. Two bitter old women remember, at last, their long-forgotten love: “We could have been living our lives hand in hand …. “

There’s beauty and wisdom in Love , as there is in even the weakest Toni Morrison novel. Her lyrical talent and her profound intelligence sooner or later make themselves felt. Here’s one of the more sympathetic characters in Love musing on the sinister symbiosis of the Cosey women’s shared hatred: “[T]heir faces, as different as honey and soot, looked identical. Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”

And here’s L, with a final verdict on the enigmatic Bill Cosey: “He was an ordinary man ripped, like the rest of us, by wrath and love.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.