Clarissa Cruz
February 11, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Ah, love. From Corinthians to Romeo and Juliet to Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, writers through the ages have tried to make sense of that crazy little emotion. But are we that much closer to understanding the swoony, throbby force that drives one person into the orbit of another? Two new books revel in the possibilities — and elevate themselves above the usual Valentine’s Day-inspired drivel.

Symmetrical facial features, lustrous hair, and abs you can bounce a quarter on notwithstanding, there’s more to amour than sexual attraction. At least that’s the supposition put forth in A General Theory of Love. Written by the psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, this is a purely biological examination of love. But rather than regurgitating the now-overdone studies of waist-to-hip ratios and promiscuous peacocks, the good doctors explain not the outward indicators of physical attraction but the less-explored biological development of emotional bonds.

The heart of their theory is this: People are not closed, self-contained creatures that interact with other similarly isolated beings; instead their bodily functions are interconnected and physically altered by their relationships with others. That is why, they contend, if one half of a couple leaves on a trip, the partner left behind may suffer a cold that would have been staved off had the pair (and their immune systems) been together. As the authors point out: ”Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

In elegant prose that keeps the dry scientific jargon to a blessed minimum, they argue why certain widely held societal beliefs (career success equals happiness; being ”in love” means the ”sparks” never disappear) clash with biological reality — and why we need a culture attuned to the ways of the heart.

Critic and feminist bell hooks examines the emotion not from a scientific perspective but from a social and cultural one in all about love: new visions, a gracefully written volume that explores love by melding personal experience, quotations from Marianne Williamson and Thomas Merton, and discussions of pop-culture/news events like Monicagate. Using her travails with ”dysfunctional” family members and turbulent romantic partners as a backdrop, she urges her readers to discard patriarchial paradigms and unhealthy relationship patterns. ”To know love we must surrender our attachment to sexist thinking,” she writes. ”[It] will always return us to gender conflict, a way of thinking about sex roles that diminishes females and males.”

Although noble and thoughtful, the book’s suggestions don’t always jibe with reality. ”There would be no unemployment problem in our nation if our taxes subsidized schools where everyone could learn to love,” hooks attests. (Congress would probably beg to differ.) She also writes: ”Living and loving in community empowers us to meet strangers without fear.” (Unless, of course, they’re brick-wielding psychopaths.) But simplistic love-school notions aside, her treatise offers a deeply personal and — in this age of chicken-soupy psychobabble — unabashedly honest view of relationships. And what’s not to love about that? A General Theory of Love: A- all about love: B-

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