What Love Is: My review of Carrie Jenkins’ book (+bonus story about mutual fangirling!)

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This is a fuzzy bar photo of me with my six copies of this book. (They were gifts!)

I’ve mentioned it several times on Offbeat Home, but I finally need to write my official review of Carrie Jenkins’ What Is Love: And What Could It Be. I started reading the book in March and immediately adored it… not because I agreed with everything, but because it’s so interesting to witness someone applying their super analytic, logic-based brain skills (the author’s background is in the philosophy of MATH, for fuck’s sake) to something as squishy like love and relationship structures. I’m smart, but my brain doesn’t quite work in that logic and reason “if A then B, therefore C” way, and honestly, dating someone last year whose brain does work that way meant a lot of extremely irritating arguments.

Jenkins is clear right off the bat that she’s coming to the table with an agenda: she’s human, she’s a philosopher, and she’s a polyamorous woman in long-term committed relationships with both her husband and her boyfriend of five years. She loves them both, and is aware that by conventional constructs of what love is, she’s out of line. She then dives into a 180-page examination of how we think about the structure of love. The author works methodically first through the biological theories of love (brain scans, chemicals) before diving into the ways social constructs around love have changed — stuff like the 20th century cultural shifts around interracial love and homosexual love.

The book is dense and meaty and gave me some great tools to help me think through my own concepts of love. I mean, I’m coming at this book through a unique lens: a divorced wedding blogger who was in an open marriage, who’s now dating. To say my opinions on polyamory are complex is a gross understatement, and while I’m not completely on-board with all Jenkins’ perspectives, reading how an intelligent woman thinks through the issue was HUGELY useful for me.

It’s worth noting that while yes: the book is a philosophy book, it’s written in language that’s accessible enough that you don’t need to be an academic to get through it. Jenkins references everyone from Plato to Simone de Beauvoir, from bell hooks to Dan Savage.

The book ends with a massive rallying cry — not that everyone should be polyamorous, but that everyone should be able to choose their own adventure through love. Of course I love this call to action because it exactly matches with the ethos of the Offbeat Empire — we’re not about prescribing a specific vision for anyone’s life (or wedding, or home, or whatever)… but rather, about encouraging readers to be aware enough about the choices they’re making to KNOW that they’re choices, and make them thoughtfully. Really, What Love Is And What It Could Be seems to have one major goal, which is to encourage us all to think more inclusively about love, and the structures we build around it.

I am so, SO down.

And now here’s a bonus story

So, one night in March, I grabbed my copy of this book and took myself to my favorite bar to drink a hot toddy and read. As I was reading, and I hit several amazing passages and new words (amatonormativity!) that I shared on Instagram, @replying the book’s instagram account.

Next thing I know (thanks, internet!), I’m DMing with Carrie Jenkins herself (omg)! And it turns out she is a fan of Offbeat Bride (omg!!) and it also turned out she had a reading in Vancouver BC the next day (omg!!!) and it also turned out that I had no plans that evening… so I decided to drive up (omg!!!!). We mutually fangirled on each other and agreed to get drinks after the reading (omg!!!!!!).

The reading in Vancouver was lovely, and the discussion afterward was great. There were a dozen or so of us in attendance, including a lesbian psychotherapist, a long-haired guy who’d clearly studied a lot of philosophy, and a blue-haired polyamorist. Everyone had interesting questions and no one rambled too long. I bought five copies of the book, and one of the fellow attendees was like, “…For all your partners?” and I was all HA HA no, they’re for my therapist, my dad, a friend, and only two beloveds of undefined status.

Afterwards, the author (can I call her Carrie? I think we are on a first name basis here) and I went to go get a drink with a friend of hers. The friend turned out to be Mandy Len Catron, who I learned was a UBC creative writing instructor who also wrote the most popular Modern Love NYTimes column of all time, and author of a book coming out in two weeks about love stories as cultural narratives.

So a philosopher of polyamory, a professor of love stories, and a divorced wedding blogger walk into a bar… the jokes are writing themselves! You can imagine the conversation was super fascinating. We tackled relationship anarchy, feminism and supposed trivialities, the role of vulnerability and trust in love, and the future edges of intimacy — androids, aliens, designer creatures, etc. We talked about consent and cultural narratives, interracial pairings and racism, writing inquiries and lit agents.

…And then I made Carrie sign all five copies of my book. I’ve since made her sign another one, for a philosopher artist I met in Brooklyn last month. Basically, this book is my favorite gift — not because I think everyone should be poly (because I really, REALLY do not) but because I think we should all strive to think clearly and speak articulately about all the squishy things in our lives.

As you’ve all probably guessed, I am DYING to talk about this book. Have you read it? Can we talk about it? Also, if you want a longer, and more in-depth review, I recommend this one.

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