When Toni Morrison is overreaching, no one can touch her. She didn't win the Nobel Prize by avoiding big, meaty topics (like slavery) that most contemporary writers wouldn't touch, and her Olympian, omniscient style seems made for grappling with tough issues and larger-than-life characters. Two of her books, ''Song of Solomon'' and ''Beloved,'' count among the most ambitious, gorgeous, and monumental novels ever published.
Majestically written, fitfully beautiful, and fundamentally trivial, Morrison's new novel, Love, operates on a much smaller scale. It takes place in a seaside town where wealthy, backslapping Bill Cosey used to run ''the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.'' By the 1990s, when this downbeat book begins, the hotel is barely standing, Cosey is 25 years dead, and his widow and granddaughter, both in their 60s, are presiding over the most twisted household since ''What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?''
Heed (full name: Heed the Night) and her former friend Christine Cosey have been at war since Christine was 12, and widowed Bill Cosey, age 52, unaccountably chose 11-year-old Heed as his second wife. (She brought coloring books on their honeymoon.) As Christine says, ''One day we played jacks; the next she was f---ing my grandfather. One day this house was mine; next day she owned it.''
Or does she? In a will doodled on a menu, Cosey left his home ''and whatever nickels are left'' to ''my sweet Cosey child.'' Which child did he mean: petulant wife or embittered granddaughter -- or maybe even someone else? A quarter century after the fact, Christine is still consulting lawyers; illiterate Heed hires an assistant to help forge a new will; and the only character who seems to know Cosey's intentions is a ghost, L, one of Morrison's wonderful, oracular old women.
But aside from L, ''Love'' features what may be Morrison's least appealing cast of characters yet -- petty squabblers nursing ancient grudges. She puts forth Bill Cosey (''a good bad man, or a bad good man'') as a flawed hero in the tradition of some of her other outsize creations, like ''Solomon'''s greedy, questing Milkman or tough, magnetic Sula. But Cosey never actually appears, though his hoary, aftershave-scented ghost implausibly begins to commune with Heed's nubile young assistant.
''Love'' contains many marvelous and wise passages that could have been written by no one but Morrison. But while the novel seems to want to say something meaningful about friendship, desire, and class, there isn't enough substance or gravity to these people -- or their cramped, stunted lives -- for the author to work her usual magic. In this minor gothic soap opera, Morrison's storytelling gifts haven't failed her, but her material has.