two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century

A-A Vindication of LoveCristina Nehring, a critic and essayist for the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and other publications, has written a highly provocative and controversial book on modern love.

The Topic: "We inhabit a world in which every aspect of romance from meeting to mating has been streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence," Nehring writes. Arguing that the modern world has created an "unendurably bland," pragmatic, and commodified erotic culture, Nehring offers counterexamples from literature and history: Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, tried to kill herself twice for a man; Abelard and Heloise met gloomy ends; and Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul-Sartre, and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, reveal love's uncompromising, and often imprudent, turbulent, and violent nature. In limning these flamboyant relationships, Nehring claims a return to such obsessive entanglements will rekindle our hearts, minds, and souls.
HarperCollins. 328 pages. $24.29. ISBN: 9780060765033

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For Nehring, one senses, true failure is to drift comfortably along in a dull relationship, to spend precious years of life in a marriage that is not exciting or satisfying, to live cautiously, responsibly. ... There is a romanticism here that could look, depending on where you stand, either pure or puerile, either bracing or silly, but it is, either way, an original view, one not generally taken and defended, one most of us could probably use a little more of." Katie Roiphe

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"[Feminists] will not like her argument that egalitarian feminism is the principal acid that has corroded romantic love. ... She hasn't built an unassailable case here for the perfidy of feminism (it's not that kind of book) or laid out prosaic steps to reignite ancient passions in the new century (it's not that kind of book either)." Meghan Cox Gurdon

Philadelphia Inquirer 2 of 5 Stars
"If humans are to survive and thrive in the 21st century, we will need a very different vision of love from Nehring's. ... Throughout this book, Nehring's own words [about personally bearing 'the bodily scars of a loss or two in love'] contradict her thesis and hint that we should strive for something beyond her notion of love-as-heroic-quest." Robert Jensen

Salon 1.5 of 5 Stars
"What's particularly frustrating about Nehring's sophomoric and overlong book (like most book-length polemics, a magazine article would have sufficed) is the vagueness at its core: She ignores reality, writing as though social life takes place entirely in a vacuum, as though culture occurs on some astral plane. ... In the end, I'm not sure the message of A Vindication of Love is all that different from any other exhortation to transgression we have seen over the years-books like The Sensuous Woman or articles in Cosmopolitan." Amanda Fortini

Critical Summary

Nehring's book stirred much debate among critics, who generally disagreed that her answers to our sad state of love-romantic excess and passion-offer feasible solutions. After all, asked the Philadelphia Inquirer, what is so gratifying about love as a "tumultuous, emotional struggle [filled with] tedious existential angst"? Other critics took issue with the idea that modern-day society lacks passionate love. The Wall Street Journal further pointed out that Nehring's prescription rests on a type of feminism that impedes our emotional well-being-and disagreed that passion thrives on gender inequalities. Although provoking and ambitious, Vindication left most critics with the feeling that "we should strive for something beyond her notion of love-as-heroic-quest" (Philadelphia Inquirer)-and that readers should probably move on.