Every now and then I read a book which not only entertains me but shifts my thinking. Alain de Botton’s novel, A course of love, is such a book. Almost nineteen years into my marriage, and I found this book on love and marriage both illuminating and familiar. I will definitely be placing it on my husband’s bedside table to read! And regardless of your relationship status, this beautifully written book is so wise and funny (read about the Ikea expedition to find glasses!) and tender, you will find something, if not all of it, to enjoy.
Alain de Botton usually writes non-fiction – even if he didn’t have an impressive list of non-fiction titles, you can tell by the observational passages in italics throughout the novel. The story follows Rabih Khan, son of a Lebanese engineer father and a German air-hostess mother and Kirsten McLelland, a Scottish woman whose mother was a school teacher and brought Kirsten up by herself after her father abandoned them.
The philosophical, non-fiction type of passages offer insights into the general nature of love –
Love reaches a pitch at those moments when our beloved turns out to understand, more clearly than others have ever been able to, and perhaps even better than we do ourselves, the chaotic, embarrassing and shameful parts of us. That someone else gets who we are and both sympathises with and forgives us for what they see underpins our whole capacity to trust and to give. Love is a dividend of gratitude for our lover’s insight into our own confused and trouble psyche.
Unlike most love stories, this story deals with their initial meeting, dating and wedding pretty quickly, leaving most of the novel to tell the story of their marriage. And as anyone who has been married knows, while movies usually stop the film after the happily-ever-after part, the real story begins, with real life, after the wedding or commitment.
The book intertwines the fictional story of Rabih and Kirsten and the non-fiction observational notes. Here’s an example of the fiction in the early pages –
He has, without knowing how, richly succeeded at the three central challenges underpinning the Romantic idea of love: he has found the right person, he has opened his heart to her and he has been accepted.
And yet he is, of course, nowhere yet. He and Kirsten 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 one another and on a few occasions to kill themselves. This will be the real story.
And here’s an example of Rabih and Kirsten’s story towards the end of the book –
Rabih anxiously attacks; Kirsten avoidantly withdraws. They are two people who need one another badly and yet are simultaneously terrified of letting on just how much they do so. Neither stays with an injury long enough truly to acknowledge or feel it, or to explain it to the person who inflicted it. It takes reserves of confidence they don’t possess to keep faith with the one who has offended them. They would need to trust the other sufficiently to make it clear that they aren’t really ‘angry’ or ‘cold’ but are instead, and always, something far more basic, touching and deserving of affection: hurt. They cannot offer each other that most romantically necessary of gifts: a guide to their own vulnerabilities.
I sometimes wonder what I’ll tell my three kids about love if they ask. (At the moment, Mr 7 thinks love is when ‘you kiss on the lips!’) How do you know if you’ve met your soulmate? How do you trust that it will last? How do you know if it’s real? How do you know if your partner will do the dishes or soothe the baby in the middle of the night or stick by your side through a mental illness or support you when your business goes bankrupt? I’m looking forward to these conversations with my kids – even if I don’t know the answers – and then I’ll give them this book.