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What Love Is: And What It Could Be

by Carrie Jenkins

We talk about love a lot. Despite our mass obsession, however, love remains a subject that has largely evaded scientific, sociological, and philosophical study. Unless it’s wrapped in a Hollywood rom-com starring Sandra Bullock, we’re not interested. The ineffability of romantic love is presumed to be a part of its charm, and a societal desire to preserve its mysteriousness has sheltered it from overdue scrutiny.

JanFeb_Reviews_WhatLoveIs_CoverThis oversight is what University of British Columbia philosophy professor and Canada Research Chair Carrie Jenkins seeks to correct in her new book. Jenkins writes with urgency, citing bell hooks’s argument that ambiguity regarding what love is opens the door for abuse between partners, and that scholars who categorize love as purely biological or cultural phenomenona promote harmful exclusivity.

Jenkins differs from her sources – which range from Dan Savage to Nietzsche to Simone de Beauvoir to Beyoncé to Plato – in her dedication to inclusiveness. What Love Is is not a staunch dissection of the heterosexual monogamy we are constantly bombarded with in the media, but rather a thorough examination of love in all its manifestations, peppered with stories from Jenkins’s own experiences as a polyamorous woman. The author attacks heteronormativity, gendering, moralizing, and the deeply held cultural assumptions surrounding monogamy and love’s other presumed trappings, including marriage, reproduction, and sex.

Love, according to Jenkins, is not simply a social construct. Her central thesis – that love is “an ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role” – is clearly stated and thoroughly defended in a logical way. Jenkins navigates readers through philosophical and metaphysical conversations in an accessible, conversational, and frequently funny way, using analogies that are both memorable and useful, and examples that are, with few exceptions, apt.

The philosopher describes What Love Is as “an exercise in critical thinking out loud,” and blends thorough research with personal experiences to present a readable and highly informative book. Jenkins in no way “spoils” love, but rather stimulates an essential, relevant conversation in a novel, inspiring way.