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Barely 200 pages long, Toni Morrison's latest novel, Love, packs all the characteristics of her best work into a slim package. But Love is neither a stroll nor a sprint -- it's a rugged trek down a jagged path, rife with detours, culminating in a deserved, if disturbing, respite.

Morrison doesn't take to easy paths.

Critics savaged her last two novels, Paradise and Jazz, for their fanciful structures and the author's daring play with language, all, many said, at the expense of the story beneath. That kind of criticism will likely plague Love as well, but it will not deter Morrison's army of admirers -- those who'd happily walk miles through the desert for one of her blood-soaked images, those who recall all the names of her vast array of characters, those who know that the story is merely a framework for all the hatred, history, anger, tenderness, lore, lust and, yes, love that the author packs into her work.

The background of Love is the Cosey Hotel, a mid-Atlantic resort that, in the 1940s and 1950s was "the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast." But by the late 1990s, Cosey's and the surrounding beach have deteriorated and faded to distant memory except for the handful of locals who still live nearby.

Bill Cosey, owner of the hotel and the "big house" at One Monarch Street, is long dead, leaving behind his ailing second wife, Heed (full name, Heed the Night), and his granddaughter Christine, two women who were childhood best friends but who now do daily battle over who should be the rightful heir to Big Bill's estate. When a sassy, ambitious young woman, Junior Viviane, enters their lives, the past and all it represents -- the convoluted paths of parental, carnal, romantic and obsessive loves -- collide.

Morrison delivers a rich portrait of a place and time, and populates her novel with unforgettable characters like the omniscient narrator L, formerly a chef at Cosey's, now an elderly short-order cook at the community's last remaining diner. Bill Cosey, deceased, is compelling in retrospect and reverie, a powerful man whose flaws ultimately defined him. Heed, Christine and Junior are all so well fleshed out that by the end of the book they are permanently implanted in memory, like the best of Morrison's characters -- Sula, Pecola Breedlove of The Bluest Eye, Milkman of Song of Solomon.

If the book is difficult to navigate, it is well worth the effort. After all, whoever said love was easy? Certainly not Toni Morrison.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

BOOK INFO

Love

By Toni Morrison

(Alfred A. Knopf: New York)

$23.95/hardcover

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison will deliver the Cornerstone Arts Lecture, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2004, 8 p.m., at Colorado College's Armstrong Hall. For information, call 389-6853.

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