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Kiss and Tell: An Intimate History of Kissing

by Alison Garwood-Jones

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Julie Enfield explores the physical and emotional journey our lips can lead us on in her first book, Kiss and Tell: An Intimate History of Kissing.

The bulk of the book approaches the kiss as a cultural phenomenon, taking us on a world tour of styles and techniques in man and animal (the sex life of the bonobo will make you laugh and pine). Weaving its way in and out of the history and anthropology are details about the body parts all abuzz over the kiss. We learn about the chemical activity of the brain, the heart, the lungs, the skin, the labia, the olfactory epithelium, and so on.

The book’s most rewarding section is a survey of the kiss in art, film, and literature. Enfield uncovers a number of amusing slips of the tongue in historical paintings that you won’t find mentioned in museum catalogues (unfortunately, not every work discussed has a matching image).

Her round-up of film kisses is a nostalgic look at kisses stolen on staircase landings and hilltops, all filmed at a time when censors’ guidelines actually heightened eroticism.

As for the best literary kiss, the box of chocolates goes to that rascal Napoleon, who wrote to Joséphine from the front, “But you are coming, aren’t you? You are going to be here beside me, in my arms, on my breast, on my mouth? Take wing and come, come! A kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower!”

Enfield, a Toronto journalist and director of PR for women’s wear giant Ports International, does occasionally get overwhelmed by the weight of her research and takes on a robotic tone, replete with Latin translations and stiff words of advice. Consider the not-so-insightful nugget about the telephone smooch (one of the many kinds of kisses she catalogues). “[T]he use of prosthetic communication devices … for sexual purposes not only provides places in which to explore fantasies, but also offers a safe context.” And here’s how it’s done: “We press our lips together and emulate a sweet smacking sound into the hard moulded plastic receiver….”

It says a lot that Diane Ackerman, Enfield’s mentor, devoted a mere half dozen pages to the kiss in her two books A Natural History of the Senses and A Natural History of Love, whereas this author stretches the subject across 240. By the end of Kiss and Tell, we’re puckered out.