The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

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Reviewed by Annabel

This is only Alain de Botton’s second novel in a writing career of well over over twenty years. He began with a stylish novel – Essays in Love in 1993 which is notable for combining the love story of two young people with more philosophical chapters which analyse what they are experiencing. To quote from the author’s website:

An entire chapter is devoted to the nuances and subtexts of an initial date. Another chapter mulls over the question of how and when to say ‘I love you’. There’s an essay on how uncomfortable it can be to disagree with a lover’s taste in shoes and a lengthy discussion about the role of guilt in love.

In between, he has continued to explore our emotional make-up and psyche with a rich variety of philosophical texts on subjects from Proust to travel, sex to work. Now, a couple of decades older and arguably wiser, he has returned to the subject matter of that first novel in The Course of Love.

Rabih and Kirsten meet and fall in love. They get married, have kids and have problems with their relationship. We know this virtually from the start:

He and Kirsten will marry, they will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair, there will be passages of boredom, they’ll sometimes want to murder one another and on a few occasions to kill themselves. This will be the real love story.

This setting out of the broad passage of the novel reminded me of how Shakespeare’s device where Bottom explains to the audience all about the play of Pyramus and Thisbe that the Rude Mechanicals will perform for them in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rather than spoiling things for you, it has the enticing reverse effect of making you want more, and I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

Our couple meet through work in Edinburgh, where Rabih, a half-Lebanese, half-German architect is planning a roundabout. Kirsten is a quantity surveyor for the local Council. On site, they get talking over tea and poppadums when rain forces them to retreat into an Indian restaurant. In small talk about their families, Kirsten tells how she was brought up by her mother, her father having absconded early on.

‘Maybe that’s why the thought of “happily ever after” has never really been my thing.’
The remark is hardly off-putting for Rabih, who reminds himself of the maxim that cynics are merely idealists with unusually high standards.

Rabih plucks up courage to ask her out properly, and soon they embark on a full relationship. It isn’t long before his thoughts turn to not being on his own ever again.

To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. This isn’t necessarily our fault as individuals. Society as a whole appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome and depressing as possible: […] It’s hardly surprising, then, if when we find someone halfway decent, we might cling.

The above quotation is excerpted from one of many paragraphs throughout the novel that, printed in italics, provide a parallel observer’s commentary on events. There is a definite self-help feel to these inserts, but they are reflective rather than instructive, often whimsical but touching on some essential truths about the psychology of relationships.

De Botton divides Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship into five main stages: Romanticism, Ever After, Children, Adultery and Beyond Romanticism. One of the funniest sections in the book comes in the second stage: in the chapter ‘Silly Things’, they are setting up home together…

Both equally aware that it would be genuine waste of time to stand in an aisle at IKEA and argue at length about something as petty as which glasses they should buy (when life is so brief and its real imperatives so huge), with increasing ill-temper, and to the mounting interest of other shoppers, they nonetheless stand in an aisle at IKEA and argue at length about which sort of glasses they should buy. After twenty minutes, with each accusing the other of being a little stupid, they abandon hopes of making a purchase and head back to the car park, Kirsten remarking on the way that she intends to spend the rest of her days drinking out of her cupped hand. For the whole drive home, the stare out of the windscreen without speaking…

It’s hard not to like Rabih and Kirsten. You really want their relationship to work, to get stronger rather than fail. As we already know, there will be hard times to come in addition to all the trials of parenthood. They have very different personalities, and apart from both losing a parent while young, very different childhoods, (Rabih’s mother died when he was twelve, his father remarried but he was never close to his English stepmother).

Having experienced marriage and fatherhood for himself since that first novel, as a philosopher, De Botton’s ‘meditation on modern relationships’ is the work of a mature writer who still finds wonder in a good marriage that can stand up to life’s challenges. That The Course of Love has these loveable protagonists, is touching, warm and playful, made reading it an absolute delight.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Alain de Botton, The Course of Love (Hamish Hamilton, 2016). 978-0241145470,  222pp., hardback.

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