Alain De Bottons Essays In Love

Alain de Botton’s first novel in 23 years – his quirky, autobiographical debut, Essays in Love, was written when he was just 23 – again takes love as its theme. Like its predecessor, it explores the myths and minutiae of courtship and relationships. It charts a couple’s marriage from the first flowering of attraction and the glow of the proposal to the everyday business of life as husband and wife. It maps the small shifts in their sex life and explores the way in which habits and behaviour which once endeared them to one another become sources of irritation and frustration.

Rabih and Kirsten’s story is an intentionally ordinary one. They meet, they fall in love, they marry, they encounter small obstacles in their personal and professional lives, they have children. One of them is unfaithful. The marriage strains but does not crack.

The Course of Love is at its strongest when De Botton steps back and allows the couple to breathe

While the book is being promoted as a novel rather than a work of philosophy, De Botton’s interests as an essayist, in work, sex, happiness, in how we live and what we live for, are still very much to the fore. The narrative is intercut with a series of italicised interjections, unpicking the couple’s motivations and impulses, dissecting their decisions. For example: “Nature imbeds in us insistent dreams of success”; and “The accusations we direct at our lovers make no particular sense. We would utter such unfair things to no one else on earth.”

The contrast between these passages and the world of the characters makes for some appealing juxtapositions. Sometimes the observations are acute and telling – De Botton is good on the politics of laundry, the compromise of domesticity – but there’s an insistence on universality that borders on the smug.

He lays out his thesis, that society builds in us the expectation that our stories will play out in certain ways, that it’s healthy and necessary to document disappointment and disillusionment, that so much of the tension in a marriage is self-generated, a product of the gulf between the life people feel they should be living and the life they are living.

Alain de Botton – your questions answered, on art, God and ugliness

The Course of Love is at its strongest when De Botton steps back and allows the couple to breathe. There’s a lot of truth and humour in his account of the earliest days of their marriage as he highlights the intricate web of pressures, both self-imposed and external, that lead them to make certain choices. Rabih loves Kirsten, but he’s also tired of a life alone. They marry, in part, because they feel it is time to marry, that they are in the marrying stage of their lives, and in the beginning, for both of them, marriage is a kind of performance: they are both playing roles, the choices they make shaped as much by their own emotions as by their family histories, their upbringings, the city in which they live, and the paths their peers are going down.

While Rabih and Kirsten’s story is always engaging and there’s an ease and believability to them as a couple, the outside voice comes to feel grating and intrusive after a while, in its pronouncements and the narrowness of its outlook, in its continual desire to pin down the mess and complexity of the human experience, to bind it and box it.

The Course of Love is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). Click here to buy it for £11.99

the complete review - fiction

Essays in Love
(On Love)

Alain de Botton

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

  • UK title: Essays in Love
  • US title: On Love
  • A revised edition was published (in the UK) in 2006

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Our Assessment:

B : weaknesses galore, but clever enough, with his trademark digressions, that we do recommend it

See our review for fuller assessment.

The LA Times.9/1/1994.
The NY Times Book Rev.B-13/1/1994P.N.Burbank
The New RepublicA-27/12/1993Francine Prose
Review of Contemp. Fiction.Summer/1994.
The SpectatorA30/10/1993Gabriele Annan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Alain de Botton picks up the torch, so to speak, more or less where Stendhal left off. De Botton�s On Love reads as if Stendhal had lived into the �90s, survived modern critical theory (as he clearly has), thought it was funny (as he likely would have), but retained a novelist�s sympathy for the impulse -- which he shared -- to deconstruct and to dissect in search of some higher understanding." - Francine Prose, The New Republic

  • "The result is something like La Rochefoucauld�s maxims crossed with Adolphe, with jokes and against a background of luggage reclaim areas and breakfast cereal packets. (...) Ingeniously pinpointed mundane details stop the novel from getting too abstract. It is witty, funny, sophisticated, neatly tied up, and full of wise and illuminating insights." - Gabriele Annan, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Baby-faced in appearance, Gallic in name and often in attitude, English Wunderkind De Botton has achieved notable (and somewhat galling) success at an early age, with five books to his name before he turned thirty. On Love was his first novel (Essays in Love, as the British original had it) -- though there are also similarly themed later novels, Kiss & Tell and The Romantic Movement. Love preoccupies the young author, as well it might, and though a big subject to tackle, De Botton tackles well.
       The story of this novel is simplicity itself: a love affair, from its very beginning to its very end. De Botton's narrator describes falling in love with Chloe, being in love with her, and then getting over her. An old story, the twist here is in how De Botton relates it, dwelling and (over)analyzing each and every aspect, and looking to see greater truths in them.
       De Botton is intelligent, and he chooses to approach his book cleverly. Clever and intelligent do not always mix, but De Botton manages quite well. Each relatively short chapter is further divided into numbered paragraphs, each a brief point (or often a brief digression) illuminating various aspects of the love between Chloe and the narrator -- and love in general. Young, well-educated, fairly well to do, neither is completely sympathetic. Part of De Botton's success is that he shows us everyday love in characters who are not particularly appealing. He revels in considering all aspects of love, including -- or rather, especially -- the mundane and everyday and trivial. There are charts and pictures and diagrams, and some of it is too cute and forced, but overall it is indeed a clever little book.
       It is a young author's book, and we occasionally grimace at some of what De Botton tries -- but it is a difficult subject to handle well. Other people's love affairs are often not the most interesting of subjects, especially when one deals with the everyday minutiae, but for most of the book De Botton keeps us hooked with his interesting thoughts on love's many aspects. The almost banal affair itself does stifle the narrative (De Botton's strength is certainly essayistic, which is why his Proust book is far superior to the novels), but there are enough well-conceived flights of fancy to keep the reader amused.
       In her review Francine Prose makes particular note of the chapter entitled Marxism, where the Marxism in question is not Karl's, but rather the Groucho's who didn't want to belong to any club that would have him. It is that sort of cleverness that fills the book, and those who are put off by it should turn elsewhere. Prose is correct in expecting that those who can't appreciate this notion (which De Botton handles very cleverly) would not enjoy the book. We would argue that the book is, on some level, even more demanding than that. De Botton is intelligent, and the book is rich in allusion and reference. While most of this is enjoyable, it is perhaps the place where he truly goes wrong: the references are too clever for the quality of his narrative (he is not quite up to snuff in the story-telling department yet), and so readers are left either disappointed by the writing or confused by the references.
       We still recommend this book rather highly, as an interesting failed effort, with enough quality, humor, and cleverness (and love-talk !) to satisfy. Like all of De Botton's book, it makes one think -- though without being overly taxing.

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Essays in Love: Reviews: Alain de Botton: Other books by Alain de Botton under review:Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Alain de Botton was born in Switzerland in 1969 and educated at Cambridge.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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