JUNE 19, 2016
IN 1993, AN UNUSUALLY PRECOCIOUS 23-year-old named Alain de Botton rocked the literary world with the release of his first novel, On Love (also known as Essays in Love). Since then he has become a minor cultural phenomenon, thanks in part to his preternatural understanding of the human condition, unerringly articulate writing, and embrace of a mind-bogglingly broad array of subject matter, from commercial cookie manufacturing to Roman architecture. An accomplished polymath, de Botton is a journalist, novelist, and philosopher who has even founded a global, multichannel enterprise called The School of Life. For more than two decades, his second novel has been breathlessly anticipated by his admirers.
Written in de Botton’s characteristic style — accessible and sprinkled with friendly parenthetical asides — The Course of Love picks up where On Love leaves off. The main character of that novel, a Lebanese-German named Rabih Khan, has grown into a young man of 31. An architect now living in Edinburgh, he still slams doors during arguments, enjoys a good sulk now and then, and has a penchant for pragmatic, independent-minded women with ruddy hair and charmingly imperfect teeth. He is still an unabashed and incurable Romantic.
When Rabih meets his client, an unflappable Scottish woman named Kirsten McLelland, he quickly falls deeply in love. Soon they are dating, and at the end of the second chapter, de Botton summarizes their entire subsequent relationship in stark terms. The couple will marry and encounter major challenges along with the banality of domestic life. Over the course of 13 years, they will have a daughter followed by a son, and one will have an affair. “This will be the real love story,” the author concludes. A synopsis so early in the book is a risky move, because it precludes any surprise on the reader’s part and saps the story of suspense. On the other hand, a quick glance at the table of contents already reveals a straightforward list of all the touchstones in this couple’s relationship, ranging from “Infatuations” to “Irreconcilable Desires.”
To de Botton, Romantic concepts of love are a surefire way to sabotage a marriage. Through the novel, he debunks the myth of “happily ever after,” instead defining love as an agreement between two fundamentally different parties, which only sometimes results in compatibility. He also asserts that love is a skill that can be learned and continually improved upon. From his perspective, a long-term relationship is a marathon, rather than a sprint — a long and sweaty slog, with ensuing aches and pains, but a considerable achievement in the end.
Another Romantic misconception, and “peculiar and sick privilege of love,” is the idea that our partner is entirely responsible for everything that happens to us. Throughout their relationship, Rabih and Kirsten blame each other for the problems they created themselves, including but not limited to misplaced keys, ripped stockings, and mother issues. The chapter discussing this is titled, aptly, “Universal Blame.”
The dynamics of Rabih and Kirsten are those of a typical couple: in addition to everyday disputes and flashes of romance, traumas of the past resurface in unexpected ways, a process de Botton calls “transference.” Both individuals have experienced nearly symmetrical losses in their childhood: Rabih lost his mother to cancer at age 12, and Kirsten was abandoned by her father as a young girl. As a result, even Rabih’s overnight business trip can cause Kirsten disproportionate distress, and a large pile of dirty laundry triggers in Rabih traumatic memories of war-torn Beirut.
Every relationship attracts threats to its sanctity, which for Rabih come in the form of “unhelpfully attractive” millennial women he encounters. De Botton is quick to point out Romanticism’s indictment of adultery and how, as a result, libido and love are often at odds with each other. He also explains what makes extramarital desire so irresistible and offers a solution: “The only people who can still strike us as normal [and therefore attractive] are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better.”
Four years into the relationship, Rabih and Kirsten have a daughter who “is, confusingly, simultaneously the most boring person they have ever met and the one they find themselves loving the most,” followed by a son. As with many couples with children, they lie on their bed “with about as much sexual tension between them as there might be between a pair of leathery grandparents tanning themselves on a Baltic nudist beach.”
Whereas On Love had avoided identifying the ethnic backgrounds of the two main characters, in The Course of Love, race and Otherness enters the picture. Kirsten practices an affectionate Orientalism toward Rabih, nicknaming him Sfouf (a Lebanese almond cake) and addressing him as “Sultan Khan.” In the bedroom, she asks him to dominate her as Suleiman the Magnificent might have done, in an act of racialized exoticism that would make Edward Said cringe. Yet on the whole, race is treated lightly as an innocuous element instead of something with the power to define and even overshadow a relationship.
For more than a decade, Rabih and Kirsten negotiate the vagaries of a monogamous, heterosexual relationship and modern life at large, even consulting a therapist. At one point in the novel, when the couple finally find themselves alone at a formal restaurant for the first time in years, they experience a giddy sense of defamiliarization. Rabih realizes there are still acres of unexplored territory between them and suddenly recognizes the beauty of his wife. Kirsten, in turn, feels a reawakened sense of interest, “making her brave — brave enough to be weak.” During this reconciliatory meal, Rabih and Kirsten recognize “the weird and exotic achievement” of having stuck it out for so many years, and “feel a loyalty to their battle-hardened, scarred version of love.” And from there, the relationship will continue its unpredictable course, full of both epiphanies and setbacks.
As a writer “stuck between two stools,” balancing the high-minded interests of academics with a resolutely populist approach, de Botton has admitted to feeling uncomfortable with the traditional novelistic format. He prefers to write in a hybrid, essayistic form, modeled after Montaigne and Stendhal, that merges fiction and nonfiction. Using the same format as On Love, de Botton tells the couple’s story through a series of vignettes interspersed with italicized passages of commentary about the nature of love. For readers who crave a conventional novel, the interruptive narration of The Course of Love will be as welcome as Clippy, the insufferable but well-intentioned paperclip character that offered to assist you in early versions of Microsoft Word. (“It looks like you’re trying to interpret that last encounter between Rabih and Kirsten. May I provide some metaphysical analysis?”)
Within this self-conscious format and its persistent voice-over, the narrator emerges as a more complex and occasionally intrusive entity. He, for it is presumably de Botton speaking, is prone to cynical aphorisms such as “Marriage: a deeply peculiar and ultimately unkind thing to inflict on anyone one claims to care for.” At times de Botton’s observations lapse into truisms, particularly in the parts around sex. For example, he claims there is still secrecy and bashfulness around taboo acts, such as bondage and domination, so they allow for freedom and are therefore exciting to people. The racier passages of the book are hobbled (not in the sexy way, either) by these unsolicited Richard Attenborough–style assessments.
The commentary-heavy style of the novel proves to be problematic in other ways. Gone are the warmth and immediacy of the characters in On Love, which benefited from a first-person point of view. Rabih and Kirsten appear strangely static, as if they were figures in a diorama, even though their backstories are fleshed out. With each episode of their relationship bookended by analytical passages, the two characters function more as illustrations in an extensive case study. Conversely, when the couple’s story proceeds for an unprecedented seven pages without commentary, it has the jarringly raw quality of handheld camera footage, and something closer to truth emerges. In this way, the book’s format of half novel/half philosophical enquiry represents the classic hybrid’s dilemma: the two halves work against each other, rather than in tandem, so the whole becomes less than the sum of its parts.
In the end, the novel can be read as a crash course in love and, more specifically, the travails of a long-term relationship. With its instructive tone, the book falls right in line with The School of Life, an institution that de Botton co-founded to administer “a kind of intelligent self-help” on everyday issues such as careers, relationships, families, and other topics not usually taught in formal schooling. As an “ambassador” for this enterprise, de Botton will discuss his book at The School of Life — an event that is, unsurprisingly, sold out.
The Course of Love retains some of the finest hallmarks of de Botton’s style, in spite of its frequently soggy analysis about relationship dynamics. It maintains his empathetic tone, scintillating wit, and fastidiously crafted prose. For those who have been in long-haul relationships, this book may not contain many surprises but will provide some insight, validating and sometimes humorous familiarity, and occasional inspiration — not unlike a long-term relationship itself.