The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: Never did run smooth

Cover imageAlain 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.

16 thoughts on “The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: Never did run smooth

  1. lonesomereadereric

    His book about work was the first thing that brought me to his writing as well! I greatly enjoyed this novel as well. You describe really well his compassionate sense and humour.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thank you, Eric. He’s such a sharp yet compassionate observer of human nature. As a (reformed) sulker I recognised his description all too well!

      Reply
  2. Christine Whittemore

    Goodness Susan, what serendipity! Just yesterday afternoon I was in a bookshop picking up and looking at this book and dipping into this book, wanting it, and trying to decide whether to treat myself to it! I’ve very much liked what I have read of de Botton and am also a veteran of a long relationship and think marriage isn’t written about enough….I put it down, but thinking I would probably get it eventually. (Maybe should just work my way through many other unread books at home first….) So, thank you for this review!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      You’re welcome, Christine. Definitely one to add to the list, then, if not to all those unread books just yet!

      Reply
  3. A.M.B.

    I’ve never read any of de Botton’s work. This sounds interesting, though there are aspects of it that give me pause. I’m surprised the author would lay out the entire course of the couple’s relationship at the end of chapter two. I’m not sure I would read on.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It’s more about the workings of their relationship than what actually happens to them. They stand for an ‘everycouple’ and de Botton examines why they do the things they do, both in terms of their own lives and experience, and the expectations instilled in them by society. I suspect it’s another Marmite book!

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I found Kristen and Rabih such an endearing couple, exasperating at times but aren’t we all. Some of the commentary was very funny but always understanding, never judgemental. I thought it worked beautifully.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I did think of you when I was writing this post, Naomi, although it’s written more from Rabih’s point of view than Kristen’s. Worth investigating, though.

      Reply
  4. bookbii

    Great review Susan 🙂 I love de Botton too, particularly The Art of Travel and How Proust Can Save Your Life both of which are wry and clever and insightful. I’ve never read any of his fiction, but after reading your review I might well look this one up. Sounds like a lovely, hopeful read.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thank you, Belinda. I couldn’t help rooting for Rabih and Kirsten. De Botton draws their trials and tribulations so well. Anyone who’s been in a long relationship will recognise some aspect of their behaviour here, too. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is my favourite of his non-fiction books. The title, alone, articulates our love/hate relationship with work so well.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        I really enjoyed The Pleasures and Sorrows of work too. Also his week at Heathrow airport. He’s the kind of guy who could write about a piece of paper and make it funny, compassionate and somehow profound.

        Reply
        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          He also did an excellent TV series on architecture, possibly on Channel 4, several years ago, contrasting British housing with other European developments. Very interesting.

          Reply

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