Alain de Botton’s first novel, Essays in Love, was published when he was a mere stripling of twenty-three. Since then he’s written essays about travel, architecture and literature returning to love for his second novel two decades after his first. I’ve long been a fan of his gentle, humane writing. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was published when I was reviews editor at Waterstone’s Books Quarterly. I made it the lead review for that quarter and as I was commissioning reviews, packing up books to be sent out to reviewers and editing their copy, I felt as if de Botton was sitting quietly in the corner of my office, benignly observing what I was up to while taking notes.
The Course of Love follows Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship over seventeen years, from their first meeting to Kirsten’s surprise birthday celebration at a luxurious hotel. Rabih and Kirsten are very different from each other although they share the loss of a parent early in life. Rabih’s mother died when he was twelve and his father remarried within a year to an emotionally distant woman. Kirsten’s father deserted the family when she was seven and she is fiercely loyal to her mother. Both bring this emotional baggage to the relationship. Rabih meets Kirsten through work after a long series of failed relationships based on a romantic ideal of what he thinks his partner should be. He has struggled to get his architectural career off the ground and is now working in urban design while she is a senior quantity surveyor in Edinburgh’s planning department, successful and confident. De Botton tells this likable couple’s story in the main from Rabih’s point of view, ending his novel with a list of reasons why Rabih is finally ready for marriage sixteen years after the wedding.
We know how Rabih and Kirsten’s story will pan out at the end of chapter two but that didn’t stop me from wanting to read on. De Botton tells us that they ‘will marry, they will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair, there will be passages of boredom, they’ll sometimes want to murder each other and on a few occasions to kill themselves’. There are frequent italicised interpolations punctuating the narrative sometimes offering an alternative, improved scenario to the one that’s just been played out, sometimes making wry or rueful comments on the nature of relationships, sometimes interpreting what makes these two individuals behave the way they do. It’s a little didactic at times but de Botton’s compassionate yet acute, often funny observations save it from falling too far into the lecturing trap. Rabih and Kirsten are an endearing couple, battling the best they can with tangles of emotion and misunderstandings as they negotiate first how to live together then how to cope with parenting while struggling with their own emotional needs, the demands of work, and running a household.
Ultimately, this is a supremely hopeful book about how a couple can live together, eventually growing into a mature and enduring love for each other which may be far from the romantic ideal peddled in Hollywood but infinitely more likely to stay the course. It’s a risky business – ‘a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate’ – but well worth the effort as I’m sure most veterans of long relationships will agree. Whether you enjoy de Botton’s novel or feel that it’s simply a thinly disguised self-help manual will very much depend on how much you like his writing and how invested you become in Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship. It worked for me but as you may have gathered I’m a bit of a fan.