The Course of Love: A Novelby Alain de Botton
We all know the headiness and/i>/i>/i>
“An engrossing tale [that] provides plenty of food for thought” (People, Best New Books pick), this playful, wise, and profoundly moving second novel from the internationally bestselling author of How Proust Can Change Your Life tracks the beautifully complicated arc of a romantic partnership.
We all know the headiness and excitement of the early days of love. But what comes after? In Edinburgh, a couple, Rabih and Kirsten, fall in love. They get married, they have children—but no long-term relationship is as simple as “happily ever after.” The Course of Love explores what happens after the birth of love, what it takes to maintain, and what happens to our original ideals under the pressures of an average existence. We see, along with Rabih and Kirsten, the first flush of infatuation, the effortlessness of falling into romantic love, and the course of life thereafter. Interwoven with their story and its challenges is an overlay of philosophy—an annotation and a guide to what we are reading. As The New York Times says, “The Course of Love is a return to the form that made Mr. de Botton’s name in the mid-1990s….love is the subject best suited to his obsessive aphorizing, and in this novel he again shows off his ability to pin our hopes, methods, and insecurities to the page.”
This is a Romantic novel in the true sense, one interested in exploring how love can survive and thrive in the long term. The result is a sensory experience—fictional, philosophical, psychological—that urges us to identify deeply with these characters and to reflect on his and her own experiences in love. Fresh, visceral, and utterly compelling, The Course of Love is a provocative and life-affirming novel for everyone who believes in love. “There’s no writer alive like de Botton, and his latest ambitious undertaking is as enlightening and humanizing as his previous works” (Chicago Tribune).
Bestselling philosopher de Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life), whose nonfiction tackles life’s big questions, traces the intricate and winding path of a long-term relationship in his second novel. Rabih Khan, from Beirut, and Kirsten McClelland, from Scotland, meet and fall in love. De Botton outlines the contours of a love that endures yet inevitably evolves over the years, through Rabih’s sudden proposal, the birth of their two children, and the act and consequences of adultery. The story of Rabih and Kirsten is interspersed—on almost every page—with de Botton’s italicized manifesto of universal truths about love and romance, such as “Love is a search for completion.” As readers watch Rabih and Kirsten work, fight, make love, and take risks, de Botton does something interesting: he will rewind a scene, usually an argument, and play it again to illustrate how loving, mature people should react, rather than how they typically do. At points, de Botton seems distant from his characters, as if they were created to illustrate his beliefs about love. But when Rabih and Kirsten are debating the details of petty humiliations and letdowns, they feel completely alive and real. The novel is a valuable commentary on the state of modern marriage and it reassures us that troubles are a normal, even necessary, part of the journey. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (June)
“The Course of Love is a return to the form that made Mr. de Botton’s name in the mid-1990s…. love is the subject best suited to his obsessive aphorizing, and in this novel he again shows off his ability to pin our hopes, methods and insecurities to the page.”
–The New York Times
“There's no writer alive like de Botton, and his latest ambitious undertaking is as enlightening and humanizing as his previous works.”
“[De Botton] analyzes Rabih's feelings, especially, with the finesse of a therapist—and in fact there is more than a whiff of the couch in this exemplary tale…Readers looking for insights and guidance will find plenty.”
“An engrossing tale [that] provides plenty of food for thought.”
–People (Best New Books pick)
“The course of true love may not run smooth, but the storytelling certainly does in this wise, humane and irresistibly readable history of an appealingly nuanced relationship. De Botton deftly moves us through time, weaving in philosophical interludes that showcase his essayistic gifts, so that before we know it we have lived a whole life with these two, and they are just getting started. De Botton directs his ferocious intelligence at the most complex puzzle of all, and it seems that no intellectual or emotional problem surpasses his ability to solve it.”
—Matthew Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves
“The Course of Love is a complete delight. Not surprisingly, I feel that Alain de Botton not only wrote it for me, but also that we must have been conversing on these subjects happily and deeply, privately or in my dreams.”
—Amy Bloom, New York Times bestselling author of Away and Lucky Us
“The always-intriguing de Botton, who returns to fiction after 20 years and numerous nonfiction books, aims to answer the question, What is it like to be married for awhile? The answers are often funny but also quite moving, thought provoking, forgiving, and drenched in truth.”
“Well-observed and imbued with a tenderness that feels authentic and uncynical. It may even save some marriages. My bet is that if de Botton’s name were taken off this book it would be fêted by the sort of people who are in thrall to Milan Kundera and Adam Thirlwell. He wants us to feel less alone — and that’s not such a bad thing.”
—Evening Standard (UK)
Praise for On Love:
"The Romantic Movement sheds light on the nature of relationships...The method of telling much and showing little produces a good deal of wit, cogency, and humor."
—John Updike, The New Yorker
"A reader gets whiffs of Donald Barthelme, Julian Barnes, Woody Allen...De Botton borrows exuberantly, and well, from forebears [and] therein lies the buoyant charm of this approach."
—Lisa Zeidner, The New York Times Book Review
"Smart and ironic...The success of On Love has much to do with its beautifully modeled sentences, its wry humor, and its unwavering deadpan respect for the reader's intelligence."
—Francine Prose, The New Yorker
Praise for The Architecture of Happiness:
“De Botton has a marvelous knack for coming at weighty subjects from entertainingly eccentric angles.”
—The Seattle Times
"An elegant book. . . . Unusual . . . full of big ideas. . . . Seldom has there been a more sensitive marriage of words and images."
—The New York Sun
"With originality, verve, and wit, de Botton explains how we find reflections of our own values in the edifices we make. . . . Altogether satisfying."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"De Botton is high falutin' but user friendly. . . . He keeps architecture on a human level."
—Los Angeles Times
Praise for How Proust Can Change Your Life:
"Delightfully original.... As well as being criticism, biography, literary history, and a reader's guide to Proust's masterpiece, this is a self-help book in the deepest sense of the term."
—The New York Times
"One of my favorite books of the year.... Seriously cheeky, cheekily serious."
"Curious, humorous, didactic, and dazzling.... It contains more human interest and play of fancy than most fiction."
—John Updike, The New Yorker
"A witty, elegant book that helps us learn what reading is for."
"A wonderful meditation on aspects of Proust in the form of a self-help book. Very enjoyable."
"Funny and very refreshing."
—San Francisco Chronicle
Praise for The Consolations of Philosophy:
“Wonderfully original, quirky.... De Botton finds inspiration where others might fail to look.”
"An enjoyable read... In clear, witty prose, de Botton...sets some of [the philosophers'] ideas to the mundane task of helping readers with their personal problems.... The quietly ironic style and eclectic approach will gratify many postmodern readers."
Though de Botton is best known for books like The Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life, he opened his writing career in 1993 with the novel Essays in Love (called On Love in this country). This second novel follows what happens to Edinburgh couple Rabih and Kirsten after that first heart-thumping moment of attraction.
More treatise than novel, this book takes a forensic approach to marriage. De Botton, a Swiss-born intellectual and TED-talker who lives in London, has long been preoccupied with human weakness, offering tips to overcome it. Via such nonfiction hybrids as How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and The Architecture of Happiness (2006), he has charmed and edified millions of readers. Now de Botton circles back to fiction—his only previous novel, On Love (1993), pondered the custom of falling in and out of love—with the story of a marriage. He presents a case study of a "Scottish wife and her Middle Eastern husband," one Kirsten McLelland and Rabih Khan. The author sums up his plot on Page 16: "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..."; he has no interest in quotidian suspense. De Botton supplies some nice insights on kindness and can certainly turn a phrase—"there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry"—but he makes this story a slog. He punctuates it with long, italicized paragraphs of psychologizing, some of it banal and some of it poppycock. It's as if a fussy uncle has hijacked one's reading. Without naming him, de Botton leans heavily on Freud, depicting his couple as stymied by childhood traumas (her father abandons her; his mother dies) and infantile longings. The straw men here are "Romanticism" and sexual fidelity, which de Botton seems to find equally absurd. (Rabih, a middling architect, does a lot of whining about monogamy.) There is a reason the heart on the book's cover is black, although Kirsten and Rabih seem to do a better job than most: "It's the sticking around that is the weird and exotic achievement." A philosopher of the everyday can't help but write marriage as a primer.
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
The Course of Love
The hotel is on a rocky outcrop, half an hour east of Málaga. It has been designed for families and inadvertently reveals, especially at mealtimes, the challenges of being part of one. Rabih Khan is fifteen and on holiday with his father and stepmother. The atmosphere among them is somber and the conversation halting. It has been three years since Rabih’s mother died. A buffet is laid out every day on a terrace overlooking the pool. Occasionally his stepmother remarks on the paella or the wind, which has been blowing intensely from the south. She is originally from Gloucestershire and likes to garden.
A marriage doesn’t begin with a proposal, or even an initial meeting. It begins far earlier, when the idea of love is born, and more specifically the dream of a soul mate.
Rabih first sees the girl by the water slide. She is about a year younger than him, with chestnut hair cut short like a boy’s, olive skin, and slender limbs. She is wearing a striped sailor top, blue shorts, and a pair of lemon-yellow flip-flops. There’s a thin leather band around her right wrist. She glances over at him, pulls what may be a halfhearted smile, and rearranges herself on her deck chair. For the next few hours she looks pensively out to sea, listening to her Walkman and, at intervals, biting her nails. Her parents are on either side of her, her mother paging through a copy of Elle and her father reading a Len Deighton novel in French. As Rabih will later find out from the guest book, she is from Clermont-Ferrand and is called Alice Saure.
He has never felt anything remotely like this before. The sensation overwhelms him from the first. It isn’t dependent on words, which they will never exchange. It is as if he has in some way always known her, as if she holds out an answer to his very existence and, especially, to a zone of confused pain inside him. Over the coming days, he observes her from a distance around the hotel: at breakfast in a white dress with a floral hem, fetching a yogurt and a peach from the buffet; at the tennis court, apologizing to the coach for her backhand with touching politeness in heavily accented English; and on an (apparently) solitary walk around the perimeter of the golf course, stopping to look at cacti and hibiscus.
It may come very fast, this certainty that another human being is a soul mate. We needn’t have spoken with them; we may not even know their name. Objective knowledge doesn’t come into it. What matters instead is intuition, a spontaneous feeling that seems all the more accurate and worthy of respect because it bypasses the normal processes of reason.
The infatuation crystallizes around a range of elements: a flip-flop hanging nonchalantly off a foot; a paperback of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha lying on a towel next to the sun cream; well-defined eyebrows; a distracted manner when answering her parents and a way of resting her cheek in her palm while taking small mouthfuls of chocolate mousse at the evening buffet.
Instinctively he teases out an entire personality from the details. Looking up at the revolving wooden blades of the ceiling fan in his room, in his mind Rabih writes the story of his life with her. She will be melancholy and street-smart. She will confide in him and laugh at the hypocrisy of others. She will sometimes be anxious about parties and around other girls at school, symptoms of a sensitive and profound personality. She’ll have been lonely and will never until now have taken anyone else into her full confidence. They’ll sit on her bed playfully enlacing their fingers. She, too, won’t ever have imagined that such a bond could be possible between two people.
Then one morning, without warning, she is gone and a Dutch couple with two small boys are sitting at her table. She and her parents left the hotel at dawn to catch the Air France flight home, the manager explains.
The whole incident is negligible. They are never to meet again. He tells no one. She is wholly untouched by his ruminations. Yet, if the story begins here, it is because—although so much about Rabih will alter and mature over the years—his understanding of love will for decades retain precisely the structure it first assumed at the Hotel Casa Al Sur in the summer of his sixteenth year. He will continue to trust in the possibility of rapid, wholehearted understanding and empathy between two human beings and in the chance of a definitive end to loneliness.
He will experience similarly bittersweet longings for other lost soul mates spotted on buses, in the aisles of grocery stores, and in the reading rooms of libraries. He will have precisely the same feeling at the age of twenty, during a semester of study in Manhattan, about a woman seated to his left on the northbound C train; and at twenty-five in the architectural office in Berlin where he is doing work experience; and at twenty-nine on a flight between Paris and London after a brief conversation over the English Channel with a woman named Chloe: the feeling of having happened upon a long-lost missing part of his own self.
For the Romantic, it is only the briefest of steps from a glimpse of a stranger to the formulation of a majestic and substantial conclusion: that he or she may constitute a comprehensive answer to the unspoken questions of existence.
The intensity may seem trivial—humorous, even—yet this reverence for instinct is not a minor planet within the cosmology of relationships. It is the underlying central sun around which contemporary ideals of love revolve.
The Romantic faith must always have existed, but only in the past few centuries has it been judged anything more than an illness; only recently has the search for a soul mate been allowed to take on the status of something close to the purpose of life. An idealism previously directed at gods and spirits has been rerouted towards human subjects—an ostensibly generous gesture nevertheless freighted with forbidding and brittle consequences, for it is no simple thing for any human being to honor over a lifetime the perfections he or she might have hinted at to an imaginative observer in the street, the office, or the adjoining airplane seat.
It will take Rabih many years and frequent essays in love to reach a few different conclusions, to recognize that the very things he once considered romantic—wordless intuitions, instantaneous longings, a trust in soul mates—are what stand in the way of learning how to be with someone. He will surmise that love can endure only when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions, and that, for his relationships to work, he will need to give up on the feelings that got him into them in the first place. He will need to learn that love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm.
Meet the Author
Alain de Botton is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including On Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, and The Course of Love. He lives in London where he founded The School of Life, an organization devoted to fostering emotional health and intelligence. More can be found at AlainDeBotton.com.
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AudioBook Review: Stars: 4 Narration: 4 Story: 4 Not quite familiar with the build of this story, the author uses dual points of view to discuss the events and emotions of the relationship and marriage between Rabih and Kirsten after the first flush of new love, through struggles and changes. If that weren’t enough, moments of struggle, conflict and even bliss are highlighted as if the couple is a case study for those wanting to learn or improve their own communications and performance. I’ve never read or listened to anything quite like this: moments from Rabih and Kirsten are often raw and brutally honest, giving the impression that listeners and readers are a fly on the wall. Small slights are seen from both sides, communication and its little breakdowns are explored and shown to erode and weaken the bonds, and de Botton provides moments for readers and listeners to see both sides, step into a situation with knowledge of how it will affect your partner, and by extension, your relationship. Narration by Julian Rhind-Tutt mixes deftly the academic and rather dry inserts with the more emotional perspectives of the two in the relationship. Philosophical insets neatly present tidbits of information to readers, while the moments of action between the couple will feel familiar to many, and give new insight on those moments. What emerges is a small treatise on the A-B-C’s of love, one or more of the insights provided will be sure to keep you thinking long after the end of the title. Interesting and carrying the feeling of a novel while being laden with information and fuel for thought, the story is engaging and entertaining, with moments that linger long after its end. I received an AudioBook copy of the title from Simon and Schuster Audio for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.