Book review: The Course of Love by Alain de Botton – author returns to form in novel
Writer better known for sometimes superficial non-fiction mines the profundity of everyday life in a telling and insightful narrative about the ups and downs of marriage
The Course of Love
Alain de Botton
To many non-fiction readers, “essayist” Alain de Botton will be a household name, although not always for the right reasons. At times hailed as a pop philosopher spreading words of wisdom, at other times he is lambasted as an overblown self-help guru.
His works have tackled nearly every major contemporary concern – philosophy, religion, work, status, art, sex, travel – distilling complex, ancient ideas into bite-sized, easily digestible forms. But de Botton cleverly saved what many consider the most important issue for his fiction: love.
The Course of Love – due to be published in June – is his first novel in 20 years, and a spiritual follow-up to his incredibly well received 1993 debut, Essays in Love. As an on-again, off-again de Botton reader since first picking up Essays back in my early 20s, I approached the book with some trepidation. His earlier works had aided my supposed quarter-life crisis and, more importantly, acted as a much-needed launch pad to meatier philosophical works, while the latter books were often flung against walls because of his schmaltzy self-improvement advice.
The Course of Love’s concept didn’t seem particularly original: the book follows your average, everyday contemporary “love story”, through an interracial relationship over 15-odd years of trials and tribulations - from its early honeymoon period, through marriage and settling down, the birth of children and the death of parents, career successes and money troubles, paranoia, confusion, adultery, counselling and finally, reconciliation and resolve.
That’s far from a spoiler, and it’s all outlined in so many words at the end of the first chapter. And it was around that point that the comparisons began. As a colonially raised South Asian in my early 30s about to marry a down-to-earth English girl, there was an immediate connection with the British-reared Middle Eastern main character and his born-and-bred Scottish wife.
Initially it only seemed a coincidence – until love took its course. One of de Botton’s greatest strengths is his ability to relate fully to his audience, often engaging readers by describing the mundanity of everyday life. Here, our characters argue about the precise time to leave for dinner; and they question why their once-lustful sex drive has started to dry up. Prominently interspersed throughout in noticeable italics are de Botton’s trademark philosophical musings about the nature of modern love.
In the extended form of his book-length works, the author’s reflections can appear downright arrogant rather than insightful; de Botton often casts aside his theme and panders to our supposed “do-it-yourself” desires. Surprisingly, in The Course of Love the writer has found his footing again.
He tackles with equal measures of humility and empathy the purpose of marriage, the need to repopulate and the absurd emotions we all give voice to on particularly trying days. Ultimately, the point he wants to get across is that modern relationships, riddled as they are with conflicting emotions and contrary attitudes, are at heart all surprisingly similar.
I don’t see my life becoming particularly exciting in the years to come. I have a sneaking suspicion that we will fall into the same traps our parents and older friends did. There may be kids, a career that probably peters out to the point of malaise, relationship frustration leading to intervention of sorts, mid-life crisis – the standard pattern. But in a way that’s OK, and that’s what de Botton’s characters come to realise.
The point of great fiction is to hold up a mirror to society so that we can both engage with its characters and reflect on the author’s insights about the human condition. The Course of Love does this brilliantly, never forgetting that there’s something absolutely profound in the ordinary.
Take it from this often jaded de Botton reader, still clinging to his dog-eared copy of Essays in Love – there’s much to appreciate over the course of his characters’ love.