by Toni Morrison


M ost book reviewers seem incapable of writing about Toni Morrison's books without spending most of their reviews expounding on Toni Morrison as Cultural Signifier. As America's leading African American author and Oprah's favorite novelist, she certainly deserves some printed consideration as a person, but it's often at the expense of discussion about her actual books, which are still as gripping as anything being written today.

Her new novel Love is a character-driven story set on the Southern Atlantic coast in the present day. After WWII, the Cosey Motel was the finest resort on the East Coast for Black America. Its four-star service, crabmeat, and dancehall made it a modern utopia for wealthy African Americans, as well as the financial and social epicenter of the community in which it operated. At the center of the hotel was the charming and enigmatic Bill Cosey, although when the book opens up, both the hotel and Bill Cosey have long passed. Their reputations and mythologies remain as strong as ever, though, and now, 40 years later, after the hotel's heyday, the women who frequented it at its prime continue to exist in an endless rehashing of the desperate bids for attention and power they have been acting out since childhood. I almost needed a flow chart to keep track of the spiteful women and their complex relations with one another and their ties to the hotel, which remains the epicenter of their small worlds. The relationships and secrets between Cosey's ex-wife, granddaughter, star employee, and daughter-in-law reveal themselves slowly and deliciously, at once shedding light on complexities and thickening the plot.

The "love" of the title refers to the women's devotion to the hotel, it's proprietor, and also to the bitter cycles of revenge and animosity they have wrapped their lives around. This is no sweet story--the amorous themes running through the book include passion, competition, neediness, posturing, betrayal, and secrecy. The plot is loosely draped around a hazy, cryptic will, but the 40-year backstory of these uncommonly interesting characters is what lingers, an absorbing miniature universe that sucks the reader in as inextricably as the bitter and tender women who have been keeping it alive for half a century. CHAS BOWIE