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DREAMS OF LOVE AND FATEFUL ENCOUNTERS The Power of Romantic Passion b y Ethel Spector Person (W. W. Norton: $18.95)

Nonfiction in Brief

July 10, 1988|SONJA BOLLE

Three cheers for this intelligent antidote to the epidemic of books that examine what's wrong with our love relationships. Ethel Spector Person says, loudly and without embarrassment, that it is human to long for a perfect love--and natural that damned few of us find it, and fewer still make it last. Person criticizes the current assumption that the desire for passionate love is "the adult version of believing in Santa Claus." The elusiveness of perfect love does not in any way diminish the importance of longing for love, or lessen the power of love to transform people's lives. On the contrary, Person points out, love--even unhappy love--has always been one of the great liberating, transcendent experiences of mankind. So it remains, despite recent attempts to distinguish mature love from romantic love, or loving from being in love.

A psychoanalyst, Person argues that love--in all its guises--should be taken seriously as an indicator of what goes on inside us. Her illustrations of our paradigms for love come not only from her circle of acquaintances, but also from literature and film; in one paragraph, we find W. H. Auden, in the next John LeCarre, here Milan Kundera, there the Frog Prince.

She describes the excitement and fear inherent in falling in love; these both come from the sense of exposure, of taking a risk. She also discusses the mystique surrounding the first quarrel, and the place that violence has in the cycle of making up.

All this does not say the author dismisses unhappiness in love. What she refutes is a prevailing sentiment that love is not worth the pain, or that only a happy love is valuable. The common feature of all loves, she argues, is that they offer a moment when personal transformation is possible. One can be redeemed by love or destroyed by it, but unhappiness "should not blind us to the enrichment that may occur even in painful love." Unrealized love may serve as "the organizing force in a creative life" (as with Dante), or sweeten an entire life with the memory of what might have been (as in "Casablanca").

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