The Short Version: Rabih and Kirsten meet and fall in love – and move in together, and get married, and have kids, and fight, and struggle, and ultimately find a sense of maturity and comfort in one another as they reach a comfortable late-middle-age – but all of this is peppered with insights from the inimitable de Botton.
The Review: It’s unfair to call this a novel. I’m sorry, it really is. I look forward to the entirely-possible debates that the 2017 Tournament of Books might bring regarding this subject but I’m planting my stake in the ground here: this is not a novel. It is a philosophical musing, a collection of thoughts that could loosely be considered an essay or series of essays that happen to use a made-up couple to illustrate the points that these essays are striving to make.
And honestly, I’d rather read the essay. In fact, I already had read the essay, or at least a part of the essay, when I picked up this novel – for much of the early essay-bits were printed as a Sunday op-ed in The New York Times. There was also an episode of This American Life that I happened to listen to just days before reading the book that featured, you guessed it, de Botton talking about a similar subject nearly verbatim. And de Botton takes great pains to separate the ‘novel’ bits and the ‘essay’ bits, putting paragraphs and sometimes whole pages in italics, signifying that now the author is speaking directly to us. I’m imagining a high school “family & consumer science” or health class video (narrated by a comforting, if sarcastic, British man – like Roger Allam or Michael Gambon) where you’re given reductive examples of overly simplistic relationships in order to tell people how you’re “supposed to act” in a committed partnership. Reefer Madness but about monogamy and partnership.
Now, let me just say: my distaste for the idea of billing this work as a novel should not be mistaken for a distaste for de Botton, a writer who I deeply admire. His insights, even if they sometimes feel like obvious things I’ve known forever, are often so calmly and skillfully shared that he has earned his status as the idealized version of a modern philosopher: he can express the things that ‘the rest of us’ find nearly inexpressible and he can do it with charm, wit, and ease so that we too can understand them. And even though I think his idea of asking potential life partners “and how are you mad?” is something that’s probably struck most members of a younger generation (who, ever increasingly, do look for the whole package in their mates but also realize that no one can ever be 100% compatible), I can see how the average reader of the NYT might read that op-ed or this novel and wonder how their life might’ve been different or be inspired to go talk to their partner more openly, etc etc.
But regardless of how intelligent and well-written his ideas are, it’s hard for me to feel anything other than annoyance at the way the book was structured. Do you remember your middle/high school textbooks, and how they would sometimes craft fictional details to help you learn? Specifically foreign language textbooks but some higher math/science textbooks indulged in this too – “This is Jane. This is Jane’s house. This is Jane’s husband. If Jane is travelling on a 12:20pm eastbound train at 123mph to meet her lover in a town 352 miles away, will Jane get home before dinner?” If you’re nodding and smiling right now, chances are you will feel like I did about The Course of Love: Rabih and Kirsten, for nearly the entire novel, are paper-doll frameworks for de Botton to build his philosophy upon. There’s no sense of an arc to their lives; it’s all telling and very little showing. An editor should have stopped to say “hang on, at one point they’re arguing about how Kirsten is making more money than Rabih and then, a chapter or two later, Rabih is pulling in two-thirds of the household income and he’s upset about Kirsten not respecting him for that. When the hell did this happen? Readers are going to be confused, if not annoyed.”
And the thing is, de Botton does spark up and engage the reader at one point – and it’s here that I begin to question, from a different perspective, his reasons for writing this particular novel. Late in the novel, after Rabih and Kirsten have been married for some time and they have children and their middle-class lives are going about as well as they reasonably can (side note: de Botton takes pains to explain that these people are blisteringly ordinary, like U.K. versions of William Stoner), Rabih is at a conference alone. He ends up sleeping with a younger American woman – who then continues to text and email him. Here, de Botton’s prose is measurably stronger and the novel begins to feel like, well, a novel. He’s writing individual interactions with some weight, he’s showing instead of telling, he’s putting some stakes to the story – because, up til this point, I really didn’t care. I didn’t care if they stayed together, if Rabih got a promotion, if Kirsten felt fulfilled. Their ordinariness backfired, leaving them largely uninteresting as people. But with the addition of the affair, there were secrets and possible ramifications and de Botton seemed interested in exploring them.
Until he… doesn’t, really. Oh, the various outcomes are considered and Rabih eventually manages to get the (rather caricaturish near-Fatal Attraction-y) American woman to stop reaching out and the marriage survives… but there’s no payoff other than in the philosophy, where de Botton goes off on a tangent (one he clearly feels passionately about) about how sexual monogamy is a ridiculous concept held over from a stricter time and we’re all silly beasts to get mad about our partners wanting to sometimes engage in naked physical exercise with total strangers. He is as strident, if not more so, about this point than he is about the “ask your potential partner on the first date about the ways in which they’re crazy” thing. Between this and the way that the novel really works during this section, I wondered if de Botton really wanted to be talking about this but couldn’t sustain interest (his own or others) in a full-length piece about it.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. For all the bad I’ve said in my review, the ending is a truly lovely moment – and there are plenty of lovely moments to be found here. Alain de Botton is, after all, a brilliant man and a talented writer. But taken as a novel, this book is slightly misogynist, overly preachy, entirely two-dimensional, and ultimately shrug-inducing. Even the philosophy included, the stuff that de Botton would’ve probably published under the same name even without the fiction bits, is largely either hypothetical armchairing or newly (albeit smartly) repackaged platitudes. Don’t be fooled by the hype about his ‘return’ to the form of the novel – and, if you’re still discovering de Botton, pick up nearly any of his other books instead.