On Memorial Day weekend, the New York Times published a piece entitled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” The article was something of an introduction to the ideas discussed by its author, Alain de Botton, in The Course of Love, his second novel and a sequel of sorts to 1993’s Essays on Love. The NYT piece, despite a clickbait-y title, also succeeded in provoking a popular consideration of its subject on the web. It found de Botton back doing what he does best: holding up the facets of day-to-day life to his accessible breed of philosophy.
De Botton has never reached the status of public intellectual in the US that he has in Britain, but he has been hard at work nonetheless. He’s one of the most media-savvy of our modern-day philosophers: he’s published 15 books and appeared in a few television specials, and has a massive YouTube following, but his most ambitious and ongoing project is The School of Life, an institution dedicated to honing life’s soft skills. The School offers classes with titles like “How to Face Death” and “How to Have Better Conversations.” The Course of Love is energized by the similar belief that ideas can enhance our lives. Its core thesis: “That love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm.”
The Course of Love concerns characters Rabih and Kirsten as they navigate 15 years of love’s trials — from infatuation, to marriage, to children, and beyond. Their respective personalities make for a ripe opportunity for conflict — Kirsten is independent and self-protecting, while Rabih inclines toward the sensitive and insecure.
One will be struck by the novel’s distinct composition. It is told in a breezy and sometimes distant present tense, to peculiar effect. On the way to their becoming full characters, the narration gives Rabih and Kirsten the air of inhabiting the exposition of some sort of classroom instructional video. (e.g. “Although they have both had a number of partners in the past, they find each other exceptionally open-minded and reassuring.”) The Course of Love is also interspersed with italicized aphorisms (109 decorate the book), bringing further outside the style of a typical novel.
For the first half of the story, Rabih and Kirsten tend to dwell in the realm of the general. They endure common couple conflicts (as when Rabih feels alienated during an outing with his wife’s friends) that sometimes approach the cliché (like a fight over glassware in Ikea). In such moments, the couple serves largely as a springboard for the ideas of the author. These bits of philosophy, especially in the beginning, are sometimes the stronger components of a given chapter.
One such insight follows the couple’s sour night on the town. Upon arriving home, Rabih descends into a sulk. The book explains:
At the heart of the 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 … It is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.
From the novel’s point of view, most of the errors and disappointments of love are the result of miscommunication and great expectations. De Botton is wary of our emphasis on romantic love as life’s defining pursuit. He is troubled by other things, such as the belief that counseling must only be the resort of a fledgling marriage. The ideas he proposes can at times come across as obvious or shallow, but there is little surprise that out of over one hundred aphorisms, some fall short of revelation. Periodic dullness might be the price to pay in order to breathe in this dense air of ideas; to inhabit an atmosphere in which the given truth lives in proximity to the neglected one.
By the latter half of the novel, the characters are realized well enough that the interjections of philosophy are sometimes a distraction. With children in tow, Rabih and Kirsten experience the selfless love of parent to child, the waning sexual fires of marriage, and the suspicion that their love is deficient of the rapturous passion love stories have led them to expect. Rabih even has a one-night stand, which the book, wisely, has him keep secret. For a novel with many answers for a proper and healthy management of love, it knows to consign certain territory to the un-answerable.
If Alain de Botton writes skillfully about love, it is in part due to the way he sees the world. We are used to stories of a more dismal perspective, as is found in a Martin Scorsese movie or Cormac McCarthy novel. Self-interest and power are the forces at play in these worlds, and the ultimate cause of suffering, failure, and strife is to be seen as humanity’s inability to overcome the bestial.
In de Botton’s view, our discontent is the result of our being ever-tethered to the childlike. Even when we are at our most vicious and harmful, it is because we are hurt, not because we are wanton. We are ultimately sensitive beings, created in the vulnerability and care of infancy, and in vital need of love and acceptance to survive. Love may be a sappy subject for exclusive literary treatment, but The Course of Love reminds us that we are, in the end, a sappy species.
De Botton is aware of his peculiarities as an intellectual. He is enthusiastic about engaging with the public. He believes that art and philosophy stand to have a beneficial effect on the lives of every person. He is vulnerable to censure in part because he has a vision; for coherence is just the thing a critic longs to sink her teeth into. It can be risky to pronounce one’s faith in art, as he does in the book, when the couple is embittered by an argument over chores:
[Rabih and Kirsten] will never be outwardly distinguished or earn large sums of money; they will die in obscurity and without the laurels of their community, and yet the good order and continuity of civilization nevertheless depend to some tiny but vital degree on their quiet, unnoticed labors. Were Rabih and Kirsten able to read about themselves as characters in a novel, they might — if the author had even a little talent — experience a brief but helpful burst of pity at their not at all unworthy plight, and thereby perhaps learn to dissolve some of the tension that arises on those evenings when, once the children are in bed, the apparently demoralizing and yet in truth deeply grand and significant topic of the ironing comes up.
Why art prefers certain depictions — duels over laundry-folding, weddings over waits in line — has been considered before, and de Botton’s book of 225 pages is hardly enough to turn the tide. Yet such a profession heralds the existence of an ambitious book; one that resolves, if it cannot change art, to widen our expectations of what we might go to a novel for.
The lives of Kirsten and Rabih lack the drama of Hedda Gabler or Agamemnon, but they help us in a solemn way to examine the illusions and pains that loving relationships are heir to. The Course of Love testifies that discontented families, if we cannot call them unhappy ones, are much alike after all.