Review: The Course of Love by Alain de Botton


I was introduced to Alain de Botton’s writings by somebody I used to know <humming>. He mostly writes odd semi-philosophical books which are surprisingly popular given their random subject matter e.g “How Proust can change your life”. “The Course of Love” is his second novel and I felt compelled to read it as I highly admire his work in general.

Let me just start by saying that it’s a very atypical novel. As any love story would have it, there are two characters who fall in love with each other and get married. The main difference is that de Botton starts his story where fairy tales end and that he’s not trying to entertain/move the reader but provide him or her with an objective examination of a long-term romantic relationship. He’s being quite harsh and he doesn’t spare his audience any of the realism of all the little and big troubles a committed couple can experience. I appreciate the author’s effort to debunk the romantic myths many of us believe as we are fed with them by the mainstream culture. Unfortunately, the characters’ personalities and the story itself are lost in the process of ruthless application of this scientific approach to human relations.

The married characters are supposed to be typical representatives of the Western middle class. Rabih is meant to be an Everyman and Kirsten an Everywoman and that’s precisely what makes them no one at all. Their interactions are accompanied by  the author’s commentary reminding us of encyclopaedic entries. This narrative is certainly innovative and occasionally amusing. Unfortunately, it does get tedious over time. As much as we may be able to relate to the characters behaviours and logically understand them, we cannot relate to them as humans. In the attempt to make them typical, the author made them  insipid.

De Botton certainly makes many good points in the book. Love isn’t perfect and we shouldn’t expect our partners to be. There will be disagreements, fights and occasional temptations. The mainstream romanticised vision of love doesn’t allow us to be realistic and examine “they lived together happily ever after”. The mere attempt to do so is commendable. I appreciate de Botton’s intellectual effort and I think that if he had put his thoughts into a form of semi-scientific article it would have been a great read. However, it doesn’t work as a novel. It’s certainly thought-provoking but neither engaging nor gripping. The beauty of literature, art and love should, by all means, be scientifically analysed but some things about them are evasive and escape the cold measurements. Love is a particular relation between two people that are drawn to each other because of the bad and good in them but also by a number of small things that they themselves don’t fully realize. Each love is as unique as human beings that form it. There’s no algorithm for love not because there’s something wrong with applying science to it, but just because there’s too much data to analyze and we bound to be coming up with vast generalisations.

I would certainly recommend other books by the author. As for the novel, it’s short and different so you may give it a go. Nevertheless, the way in which it’s written makes it a rather boring pastime halfway through when we’ve already appreciated the author’s idea and style.

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