Us: Americans Talk About Love

One simple question: Whom did you love most?

Us: Americans Talk About Love Edited by John Bowe Faber & Faber 448 pp., $16

Whatever form love takes, it is always fascinating to dissect. Alongside death, love is surely the most ­obsessed-over subject in the history of literature and poetry.

In his new anthology, Us: Americans Talk About Love, editor John Bowe takes the pulse of American experiences of love won and lost – from teenagers to octogenarians, and across the socioeconomic and geographic spectra. Unlike the typical anthology filled with essays by familiar authors, “Us” offers love stories by nonliterary types, told in their own voices.

In the book’s preface, Bowe writes that this oral history “aims as an ensemble to do justice to the array of voices in our country, celebrating their earnestness, openness, optimism, vulgarity, humor, religiosity, sexuality, and generosity.” He began each interview with the same simple question: “Please tell me about the person whom you have loved the most.” The responses he elicited are rich and varied and startling.

Although Bowe claims to have no special expertise on the subject, he’s quite articulate in describing love’s endlessly surprising nature: “At the heart of the compact between two lovers is mystery code that, for anyone else, reads as kabbala-like, indecipherable gibberish. And yet, for the lovers, it’s transformative, life-affirming, redeeming. It could well be a ghost. It doesn’t matter a bit.”

Love can begin with a mutual spark at first sight. Or, as in the case of 36-year-old New Yorker Jordan Perl, it can be a meandering, confusing road. He recounts his undergraduate years at Yale, when he was fixated on a close friend, Rebecca, who obdurately refused to move their relationship into romantic territory. (She also had a number of other avid suitors.) He persisted; she ultimately realized her feelings for him, and they have been married for 12 years. “[T]he fact that it took so long might be the reason why we ended up together,” he says. “It’s really been the key to our long-term happiness.”

Jack Babineaux of Louisiana has a rather Forrest Gump-like perspective on love, seeing it as “two people each reaching for the French fries at the bottom of the McDonald’s bag … one of them is going to let the other one have it. That’s love.”

San Antonio teenager Celia Menendez shares her hilariously succinct take on a former boyfriend: “I guess the best way to describe us is like Crystal Pepsi. Like, we were this really, really great idea. And then it didn’t really work out.”

For others, a relationship lasts but demands unfathomable tests of strength. “It got to the point where I was asking God for the strength to get through the day because I did not know whether or not my wife was going to be alive when I got home,” says Steven Hager of Colorado, married for 21 years. After his wife suffered an accident, the pain left her suicidally depressed, and she tried to kill herself with a shotgun before he intercepted her (on more than one occasion).

There are stories of grief. Kathy Barrett, a 72-year-old widow from Vermont, recalls her idyllic marriage to Bob: “On most major issues, we thought alike, and if it was minor issues, we didn’t bother arguing,” she says. “We were both Roman Catholics, we believed in the tenets of our faith. I really think there’s a spiritual side to love.” He died of a heart attack eight years after their wedding, and she never wanted to be with anyone else. “I know what I had for the time I had it,” she says.

In his preface, Bowe explains that “Us” makes no attempt to offer a grand, sweeping statement on its subject. He notes that many people show their best selves in love, while others are at their most monstrous – and no matter what, so many marriages in America end in divorce. Still, he discovered some instructive elements among those who have achieved “successful” love, which Bowe defines as “a series of simple actions, performed repeatedly in various forms: listen, affirm, accept, support, commit, share, be honest, forgive.” There’s nothing sexy or exciting about that, but it works.

One of the book’s most inspiring love stories is the longest-lasting marriage featured in “Us”: 65 years, although Fred White and his wife, Helen, from Mission, Kan., have actually been together for 71 years – since junior high school.

“She was quite a doll, and I didn’t want anybody else,” says Mr. White. “That’s the way it was. I’ve got good taste!”

Now 86 years old (with a 62-year-old son), White admits that the duration of his happy marriage is extraordinary, but he believes it is possible for anyone. “I don’t have a lot of advice,” he says. “True love exists. If you make it. It’s a true thing if you make it.”

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of several anthologies, including “Poems for America.” She is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.

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