Review: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

I put off reading this for a long time.  Early impressions were of pretentious discussions on the meaning of love which did not inspire me with enthusiasm, but once I actually sat down to it, I was very pleasantly surprised.  Part novel, part case study, The Course of Love marks de Botton’s first attempt at fiction in over twenty years.  Rabih and Kirsten meet, fall in love and marry, but de Botton points out that this is not the end of their story.  While Jane Austen was content to leave her ladies to assumed wedded bliss, De Botton takes an wide-angle view of love.  Charting sixteen years of a marriage, he describes love as more ‘skill than enthusiasm’ and considers the everyday vexations and frustrations that can cause couples to stumble on their way round the course.  Despite my misgivings, I found myself completely won over by this deliberately ordinary tale which celebrates the heroism of two people making it through marriage.

Rabih is an architect, Kirsten a surveyor working for Edinburgh Council – they meet at work.  He is Lebanese, she is Scottish.  He is a romantic, shy and insecure.  She is resolutely self-sufficient, defensive.  We know that they love each other, that is not disputed – but they do not truly know their own true selves, so how can they truly understand each other?  Weaving in and out of the history of Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship are italicised paragraphs of de Botton’s more general observations on relationships and love.  The couple serve to illustrate his points, but while these passages are elegant and stylishly constructed, there were times when they felt a little intrusive, particularly when de Botton was able to make more specific commentary on his characters in the main body of the text.

The novel begins before ever Rabih sets eyes on Kirsten, commencing with a chapter on ‘Infatuations’ which chronicles how the teenage boy’s crushes can come to shape his expectations of relationships.  From there, there is ‘Sacred Start’, where de Botton contemplates how the ‘How We Met’ story is asked and recounted so often, but yet how little it can tell anyone about the current state of someone’s relationship.  I have been struck by this before with friends, of how a couple’s shared jokes and stories are suddenly lost when the relationship dissolves.  The one will snidely declare that they never really liked this or that after all, that the love once so prized was never what it seemed, and the other will simply disappear.  I wished that de Botton had explored more that idea of relationship mythology, of how people can define their relationship by what others think of it.

The idea of the ‘sacred start’ was another notion which gave me pause for thought.  On a personal note, I met my partner online.  This is an increasingly common experience and when I have been asked how I met him, people are more likely to ask which site than express surprise.  But yet, in meeting someone by arrangement for the purposes of dating, I felt that a lot of de Botton’s ‘sacred start’ is skipped over.  In meeting Kirsten in her professional capacity, Rabih has to wonder whether he is imagining an attraction on her side.  The way towards each other requires both to make a leap and hope that the other responds.  Meeting online removes a lot of this uncertainty and replaces it with another, the hope that the other person will be what their preview implied them to be and that attraction is genuine and not merely a product of the situation.  Wondering whether your expectations and theirs will match.  Our approach to finding a mate is becoming increasingly algorithm based, yet human emotions remain illogical and unpredictable – I did feel a little disappointed that in all his musings, de Botton never ventured into how the internet has changed our route into the course of love.

However, despite these two points which left me wondering, de Botton still uses Rabih and Kirsten to make a plethora of other insights into human relationships.  The politics of laundry, the nonsensical ‘blame game’, the strains of childcare – all of these put pressure on the love which had begun in such a state of perfection.  As de Botton points out, one of the things that makes these mundane struggles so difficult is ‘because they have so seldom seen their struggles sympathetically reflected in the art they know’.  Rows over which set of glasses from IKEA may seem petty, but de Botton unpicks the dispute back to its root, never condemning either side for being upset but also illustrating how hard it can be to articulate these deep down fears which make us act so irrationally in the first place.  We realise then what de Botton’s intention really is – to explain, to justify and above all to put these daily disputes which are so absurd into a context that makes it them easier to resolve.  Last year, I read Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage, which Tyler wrote as an exploration of how incompatibility of character can be played out over a long marriage.  De Botton is wiser, he acknowledges that as two separate entities, Rabih and Kirsten are fundamentally incompatible but they love each other and under his direction, they are able to find a way through their stresses and strife and the marriage survives.

There were moments perhaps where de Botton’s observations could feel hackneyed – for me, it is a cliché to assume that Kirsten is burdened by her father’s abandonment of the family when she was a child and that this has made her a defensive and avoidant adult.  Perhaps simply because he too was male, it felt that de Botton gave more of a voice to Rabih so that the wife was less fully-realised.  My own allegiance was decided by the incident of infidelity – yes, one of the couple is unfaithful.  When asked by their lover about their spouse, the adulterous character responds awkwardly that they are nice and that the lover would like them.  This felt deeply distasteful and although de Botton does offer explanation and mitigation, to me it can only illustrate a crucial weakness of character.  Yet still, even in areas where I could not sympathise, I was transfixed by de Botton’s empathy for his characters.  While he may seem to brush aside the power of love in the face of life’s challenges, he seems to understand the dogged primal desire for it, for the comfort of someone who will not go away.

I caught myself thinking of those whose love stories are celebrated in our popular culture – how people hark back to the ‘She Got Off The Plane’ moment in the Friends series finale, as if a pair of people who have been on and off for ten years can actually be said to have a healthy relationship.  Or else there’s the couples in Grey’s Anatomy who make lengthy eloquent declarations to each other on a weekly basis and then break up for little reason or die.  If it isn’t high-adrenaline, word-heavy and likely with a contemporary song playing in a background, how would we ever be able to tell that we are witnessing True Love?  But yet de Botton emphasises how often marriage can mean monotony, as in his fantastic description of parenthood, following the birth of the couple’s daughter Esther.   ‘Neither Kirsten nor Rabih have ever known such a mixture of love and boredom. They are used to basing their friendships on shared temperaments and interests. But Esther is, confusingly, the most boring person they have ever met and the one they find themselves loving the most.’  There is a reason why television has always struggled to incorporate child characters into a narrative – it is not interesting to observe, it takes resolve to see through and keeping hold of a relationship through it all takes remarkable tenacity.

De Botton’s book brings out into the light those moments within a relationship that otherwise would leave you wondering – is it just us?  Returning to Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage, the husband in that book ponders how he got married, he had not felt like he knew what he was doing but that now all these years later, other couples seem so assured and yet he feels no more assured.  The Course of Love may at first seem pessimistic in effectively saying this confidence is unachievable, but although Rabih may have to compromise on his romanticism, the novel closes with the sense that his relationship with his wife is that of a solid partnership.  De Botton may gently mock the idealism of hoping for ‘a best friend, a lover, a co-parent, a co-chauffeur and a business partner’ in one person, but yet despite their imperfections, Kirsten and Rabih finish the novel still together and united.  There has been give and take on both sides as well as forgiveness and they only seem bound the tighter.

If one were to ask Esther or her brother William about their parents, they would most likely dismiss them as dull.  To an outsider, their lives have contained little action.  An ordinary novel would have had to insert some kind of complicating external action to make their stories worthwhile.  But yet we see them as survivors, battle-scarred veterans of the most complicated and confusing part of the human experience; that Rabih and Kirsten’s lives are commonplace and their experiences typical only serves to emphasise the point.  I will treasure The Course of Love – in attempting to tackle such an intangible subject, de Botton leaves himself open to easy criticism, but yet I could not but be amazed and awed by one of the most truly honest depictions of love that I can ever remember reading.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
Published by Penguin UK on April 28th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Humorous, General, Contemporary Women, Romance, Contemporary, Black Humor, Romantic Comedy
Pages: 240
ISBN: 9780241962121

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

  1. My first reaction on seeing your review that it was of de Botton’s book ‘Essays in Love’ which I remember recommending to you, but reading your review and checking my bookshelves that is a different book – though not it seems entirely, it reads as if this one has much of the themes of ‘Essays’ but written as novel.

    In ‘Essays’ paragraphs on the telling the story of the relationship between a couple who meet on a ‘plane journey are interspersed with paragraphs discussing what is going on between them in philosophical, psychological and emotional terms.

    This clearly been an ongoing area for de Botton, ‘Essays’ was written in 1993 then a revised version was published in 2006. From your review it seems he decided to tackle the same issues purely as a novel.

    I agree entirely with your final comment and I would say the same of ‘Essays’. You also state the couple in the book “…are fundamentally incompatible but they love each other…” and I so understand that on a personal level (ironically, between reading your review and beginning to write this comment my wife and I had a conversation that backs up that idea!)

    He also seems to be a very approachable author, I had a question regarding an anecdote in ‘Essays’ and e-mailed him use the address in the book, he responded in minutes!

    1. It’s strange how we can feel more well disposed towards a book if the author seems nice – although I then find myself liking certain books by authors like Dickens which I am predisposed to disapprove of.

      I have a good friend who read Essays in Love and said that she thought the Course of Love would be too much of a retread so wanted to skip it. This was the first thing I had read by this author and while I love it, I can imagine that he could seem repetitive after a while so I will definitely be leaving it a while before I seek him out again. This being said, this does sound different to Essays in Love in that it considers a couple over a long stretch of time rather than a plane journey and his two characters were very well drawn.

      This was a highly unusual book and I have been thinking about it a lot since I finished it – so few novels create relationships which are so recognisable. I really need to hear from more people who have read it!

  2. I’ve seen this around and been intrigued, but not picked it up yet. Your review gives me one more very strong reason to do so!

    Based on my 15 year relationship with my husband, I can vouch that a long-term relationship involves a lot of monotony, and bouts of feeling totally incompatible. And yet it can bring incredible rewards if one can break through to another level of mutual understanding.

    1. Wow – 15 years is an amazing achievement! It’s good though again to hear these experiences, to read about couples who do not spend their entire lives in some kind of romantic comedy whirl, but who can fall out over the laundry or if one of them leaves their phone in the airport. That we can have these petty disagreements and then find our way back to each other gratefully again is part of the more mundane adventures of relationships – The Course of Love may not offer escapism but it does offer understanding. I hope you’ll let me know what you think if/when you get round to the book 🙂

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