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Book Reviews

Passion Lost: Public Sex, Private Desire in the Twentieth Century

by Patricia Anderson

Passion Lost, the latest book by Vancouver literary consultant and historian Patricia Anderson – and a successor to her previous title When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians – attempts to trace passion’s progress over the last century. While the Victorians may have believed that passion “embodied the whole of emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy,” the last century has seen passion’s physical dimension separated and emphasized, leading to today’s overarching candour and simultaneous societal voyeurism and exhibitionism.

While the premise is promising, and sex is always fascinating as subject matter, Anderson’s narrative fails to coalesce into significance. Her chronological overview of the century is cursory and superficial, with occasional insights almost lost in rehashed data and historical anecdotes. One of Anderson’s aims seems to be the correcting of historical generalizations, but surely everyone realizes, for example, that the 1950s weren’t simply a monochromatic, anti-sexual, Grey Flannel Establishment suburban wasteland?

In the book’s later stages, Anderson falls into the trap of historical proximity: she seems unable to gain a historical perspective on the 1980s and 1990s, with talking points replacing firm conclusions. The book’s closing chapter, however, provides readers with an effective manifesto to reclaim sexuality from advertisers and the disconnected culture at large.

Passion Lost is pitched at a general readership for whom an in-depth history might seem intimidating. Anderson’s prose style is brisk and efficient, with a natural and seamless integration of sources and references. Her use of the sinking of the Titanic and the 1997 James Cameron film as cultural and historical touchstones is more effective and thoughtful than might first seem apparent. Passion Lost acts as an effective and readable primer on 20th century sexuality and mores – readers seeking something more substantial will have to look elsewhere.