Sunday, March 15, 2009


I'd always wanted to love Toni Morrison, but after struggling through Beloved and Tar Baby, I had given up. Which is how Sula sat on my shelf for years before I finally read it. I can say definitively that it was about time. It's a short but complex novel; Morrison packs a punch into a relatively straightforward story.

The novel tracks the friendship of two black women in a small Ohio town over the course of three decades. In 1919, Nel Wright and Sula Peace are a couple of lonely 9-year-olds, Nel living with her religious and conservative parents, and Sula with her widowed mother, grandmother, and the various stragglers and orphans that they've taken in. The two become fast friends despite, perhaps even because of, these differences. Nel loves the chaos of Sula's home; Sula savors the order of Nel's. They become inseparable friends who face every adventure and challenge together, be it tragedy or love. At the age of 17, Nel marries one of the town's most eligible bachelors and Sula leaves town to seek her fortune.

When Sula returns ten years later, her friendship with Nel quickly falls back into step. The happiness of the friends' reunion is short-lived, however, when Sula sleeps with Nel's husband. The town's initial distrust at Sula's return - an unmarried woman, still beautiful though nearly 30 years old, who puts her own grandmother into a home - becomes outright fear and hostility as her list of sexual conquests stacks up. It is not until Sula is lying on her death bead that she and Nel are able to reconcile.

The story is a simple one, but the novel's themes are far from simple. Morrison explores numerous types of relationships: the love of a mother for her children; friendship between women; sex; love; townsfolk and their rejects. It examines guilt, and the difference between good and evil. Morrison captures the difficulty of post-emancipation life in the midwest, and breaks your heart several times while she does it. If you've never enjoyed a Toni Morrison book before, give Sula a try - you won't be disappointed.

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