ALAIN DE BOTTON The Course of Love. Reviewed by Robin Elizabeth
De Botton’s novel about relationships and keeping love alive comes with an inbuilt commentary from the author.
The Course of Love has been touted as the long-awaited sequel to Alain de Botton’s debut novel Essays in Love, which was first published in 1993. In the interim he has published 11 books and also received the Fellowship of Schopenhauer from the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in 2015 for his work in founding the School of Life and Living Architecture. This sequel has received a mixed reception, as so many of de Botton’s works do.
Instead of asking ‘How do you find love?’ de Botton poses a question at the different end of the relationship spectrum: ‘How do you stay in love?’ An undoubtedly important question that often gets far less attention than the passion of a new romance or the tragedy of a broken heart.
The Course of Love follows the relationship of a fairly generic couple, Kirsten and Rabih, who fall in love, get married, and then have children. For many novels this would be the end point – that Kirsten and Rabih finally realise they’re soulmates and live happily ever after. But this is not the case in real life or in The Course of Love. This is the beginning, because the real trick is how you stay together.
De Botton explores this issue through a somewhat traditional narrative following the lives of Kirsten and Rabih, but with italicised commentary from the author inserted throughout. The structure seems to be where much of the issue with the novel lies. The narrative is in the second person, which many readers find jarring, and the commentary directs the readers towards what they should be focusing on and thinking. Much of the joy of reading fiction comes from the different interpretations and moments that you can savour, whereas de Botton pre-empts this. Some people find this helpful, as if the author is having a conversation with readers about his or her opinion of the relationship depicted. Others find this approach disruptive and that it takes away the agency of the reader.
In his first italicised commentary de Botton states:
A marriage doesn’t begin with a proposal, or even an initial meeting. It begins far earlier, when the idea of love is born, and more specifically the dream of a soulmate.
From the very opening of the book the reader is being told to think about love as a lifelong journey that starts with the expectations and role models provided by our early experiences. And as no two people have exactly the same upbringing, and as subconscious expectations are so deeply ingrained and rarely questioned, there will always be some conflict. This is a profound and true view of love and life, but people who prefer a traditional narrative might want these ideas to be shown through the events of the novel, rather than having them spelled out. De Botton is most definitely telling, not showing.
Nevertheless, he highlights some of our most deliciously ridiculous expectations of relationships. The chapter entitled ‘Sulking’ encapsulates this beautifully:
At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one.
We’ve all been there. And we’ve all felt totally justified and righteous in our sulk and refusal to yield an explanation. The commentary helps the reader see just how ridiculous this is, and that open communication is necessary for a lasting relationship. This sharing of, and sending up of, universal experiences is quite effective in getting across de Botton’s views about how to stay in love. But again, it is dictating what readers should think, as if it were a psychology textbook, rather than a traditional narrative.
The Course of Love is an intriguing exploration of how to achieve longevity in relationships, sprinkled with de Botton’s own personal insights. People who love reading case studies or self-help books will thoroughly enjoy this book. People in search of fiction with a traditional narrative structure will be left feeling underwhelmed by it. So in the end the choice is truly yours: is it incredibly smug or incredibly wise? As for this reviewer? I loved it in parts. But I found it not as charmingly self-indulgent as Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which fully absorbed readers with second-person addresses going as far as to tell them to kick off their own shoes. Nor was it as insightful as Julian Barnes’s A History of a World in 10 ½ Chapters, which looked at the entire history of humanity, finding a special place for love in a chapter simply entitled ‘Parenthesis’, quietly tucking away the topic yet still showing its frail beauty and essentialness to existence.
The novel was a tad underdone for my personal taste, but still a very worthwhile read that I would highly recommend.
Alain de Botton The Course of Love Penguin 2016/17 PB 240pp $19.99
Robin Elizabeth is author of Confessions of a Mad Mooer: Postnatal depression sucks and blogs at http://riedstrap.wordpress.com about her love of Australian literature, depression, and whatever tickles her fancy bone.
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