The Course of Love
Alain de Botton's May 29, 2016 op-ed piece in the New York Times, entitled "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person," inspired a blizzard of reader comments --- 531 in all by the time the response period closed. Not surprisingly, his view that "Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for" struck many readers as cynical in the extreme.
Those same readers might want to reconsider that reaction after reading his sagacious, sophisticated new novel, THE COURSE OF LOVE, which wraps insights like that one around a sensitive portrait of a marriage to make any thoughtful reader question, with de Botton, the psychological and social damage inflicted by our modern notion of romantic love.
He patiently marshals the evidence to support his case through the characters of Rabih Khan and Kirsten McLelland. Rabih is an architect with an Edinburgh urban design firm that specializes in public works projects, while Kirsten is a local civil servant with a degree in law and accountancy. They meet on a construction site, and within two hours Rabih magically "feels certain that he has discovered someone endowed with the most extraordinary combination of inner and outer qualities," the person "with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life." The couple's brief, intense courtship is proof positive of de Botton's arch definition of marriage:
"Marriage: 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."
"The aphoristic style of de Botton's New York Times essay emerges here in frequent authorial asides that make his novel a cross between a work of fiction and an astute self-help manual."
Though their backgrounds couldn't be more different, they share the experience of early loss. Rabih, an atheist of Muslim ancestry, grows up in Beirut amid the sectarian violence of the Lebanese civil war. Shortly after fleeing the city for Barcelona by way of Athens, the 12-year-old boy loses his mother, a German flight attendant, to cancer. Raised a Catholic in Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands, Kirsten watches her father inexplicably walk out of his family's life when she's seven, never to return.
As the couple discovers only after much pain and mutual misunderstanding, these early traumas have shaped each one's response to marital conflict in ways that threaten repeatedly to undermine their bond. "We too often act from scripts generated by the crises of long ago that we've all but consciously forgotten," de Botton writes. "We behave according to an archaic logic which now escapes us, following a meaning we can't properly lay bare to those we depend on most."
That corrosive process plays out as de Botton follows this attractive young couple through the first 14 years of marriage. We experience along with them how the first flush of romantic love and its attendant sexual excitement are gradually scraped away by the friction of life's demands and disappointments that include the birth of two children and a casual act of adultery.
Far from being the embodiment of perfection and mutual fulfillment each initially sees in the other, Kirsten instead endures the frequent flaring of Rabih's irritability and anger as his career stalls and he's weighed down by the burdens of fatherhood, while her response to his tirades is to withdraw into isolation, a reaction that only fuels this destructive cycle. When each embarks on the process of improving the other, the tension rises.
The aphoristic style of de Botton's New York Times essay emerges here in frequent authorial asides that make his novel a cross between a work of fiction and an astute self-help manual. Ranging from droll to at times a bit frightening, those observations offer substantial grist for reflection to readers who have been married for any length of time.
de Botton argues (and displays movingly through the story of Rabih and Kirsten) for what he calls "enlightened romantic pessimism," an attitude that "simply assumes that one person can't be everything to another." Instead of holding each other up to an idealized (and impossible) standard of perfection, he suggests, "We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a 'good enough' marriage."
By the novel's close, de Botton has gently helped us understand how even the most seemingly unremarkable marriage may deserve to be regarded as a work of quiet heroism. "Love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm," he concludes, an attitude most couples might do well to adopt to carry them through the inevitable rough patches and leave their unions intact.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 17, 2016
The Course of Love
- Publication Date: June 14, 2016
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
- ISBN-10: 1501134256
- ISBN-13: 9781501134258