Love’s Compass

In LOVE’S COMPASS: A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE HEART, Daniel Mark Epstein has set himself a daunting task. In six chapters, each devoted to a particular form of love--“Filial Love,” “Sibling Love and Childhood Friendship,” “Erotic Love,” “Conjugal Love and Adult Friendship,” “Parental Love,” and “Spiritual Love”--he recounts his experience of love from childhood to maturity. Yet this is no autobiography in the conventional sense of the term, for Epstein uses his own life to illustrate general truths about the nature of love. Thus throughout the book there is a movement from the general to the particular and back again; personal narrative (which makes up the bulk of the book) is always in the service of a point to be made.

To some extent, Epstein is clearly aware of the enormous scope of his project. In a prefatory chapter he stresses that love is ultimately a mystery. At the same time, he describes love as “a great teacher, not only of civilizations but of individuals.” This theme--the notion of love as teacher--gives unity to the diverse recollections and reflections that follow.

Most readers of LOVE’S COMPASS will encounter passages that resonate strongly with their own experiences of love for a brother or sister, a parent, a spouse, a child. Epstein, who has published a book of essays, STAR OF WONDER, in addition to several collections of poetry, is a thoughtful, humane, and sharply observant writer. Still, for all the virtues of this book, there is something unsatisfying about it. The tip-off is tone: Epstein’s is faintly sententious, self-satisfied, the literary equivalent of “thirtysomething.” That unconscious smugness seriously limits the range and depth of these meditations on love.