Cairo’s Bibliomane: The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

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Written by Dalia Ismail

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“The course of love never did run smooth(ly)” – William Shakespeare

When it comes to issues of love and marriage, there yet remains much that our Egyptian society’s collective awareness does not seriously consider. We rely too much on the idea that we need to marry the ‘perfect’ and ‘right’ person while what truly matters is finding someone who “can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace”, as de Botton writes in his novel The Course of Love. What’s even more puzzling is that resolving marital problems is still assumed to be instinctual; God forbids, you are not supposed to call upon professional counselors when your grandmother has therapist-trumping advice under her sleeve – notwithstanding the fact that her tips may have brought a few family marriages to ruins!

Your grandmother’s tips aside, though, marriages are in trouble, as evidenced by an alarming upsurge in divorce rates worldwide and a multiplying number of unhappy, barely-holding-together marriages. Apparently, lovebirds aren’t experts in managing the institution of marriage because they were simply never educated beyond Romance movies and novels, which brushes over the ‘course’ love takes after marriage. Wouldn’t the stats look better if popular media addressed The Course of Love?

It seems that Art backs off and leaves us alone when we most need guidance with taking the steps towards “institutionalizing” a couple’s relationship. To fill the gap Art left, de Botton – whose name pronunciation requires some practice- probes the course of love traced through some sliced-off years of a married couple’s life to help readers revise their Romantic beliefs.  

The Plot

The Course of Love openly discusses the all too normal ailments of marriage, this fundamental social institution. Throughout the novel, several striking facts about the taken-for-granted ordinariness of relationships are revealed. De Botton plots a storyline of an average couple discovering the pitfalls of getting married, picking trivial fights, raising children, and curbing unresolved troubles. All the while, de Botton stealthily inserts cursive commentary that fits perfectly between paragraphs.

At its core, The Course of Love is a philosophy-infused tale and parable of a maturing urban couple treading the bumpy road of marriage, passing through relationship milestones such as sulking, children, adultery, and therapy. These chapters’ themes may seem incongruous, but, de Botton smoothly merges one into the other and toes his readers in.

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Readers

You might think that a novel titled “The Course of Love” targets swooning, love-sick lovebirds. However, it is not just a novel about love; rather, it’s about the philosophy of managing all kinds of relationships. While reading it, you only need to be curious enough to conceive human relationships. With a fast-paced, richly detailed plotline, it is a thought-provoking novel that you can read in a couple of sittings yet continue to think of long afterwards.

As is the case with any other normal novel, you can easily relate to and learn from the main characters, Rabih and Kirsten, whose mood swings and seemingly irrational lashes reveal very familiar troubles. Through revealing these average characters’ flaws, de Botton encourages his readers to devote some time for introspection and open communication. After finishing it, you will have been offered a lens through which you could inspect established and failed relationships in your family’s and friends’ circles. So mischievously fun!

Writing Style

Every single sentence de Botton wrote in this novel appears to be the result of a painstakingly careful process of meticulous distillation of words. I found myself reading and rereading paragraphs to take stock of the diction’s beauty. His choice of words is marvelous, even, paradoxically, when his sentences run a little too long. I can guarantee that wordophiles and bibliophiles would undoubtedly be left enchanted after digesting each paragraph, let alone chapter. (Here’s a snippet: “…traveling  through  the  interstitial zones of consciousness”)

Please note the verb digest, rather than read. To be perfectly frank, this is relatively heavy stuff masterfully made light for the nearly casual reader. De Botton is, after all, the founder of The School of Life; his style has a philosophical and psychological bent, so you may find that reading The Course of Love is not dissimilar to reading decoded psychoanalysis textbooks on love and relationships. Here’s a passage:

“Marriage lends Rabih and Kirsten an opportunity to study each other’s characters in  exceptional details. No one in their adult lives has ever had as much time to examine their  behavior in such a constrained habitat and under the influence of so many variable and  demanding conditions: late at night and dazed in the morning; despondent and panicked over  work,  frustrated with friends, in a rage  over  lost  household  items.”

All in all, The Course of Love reads like a course on love’s evolutionary process of development from its infancy to its late bloom. It is perhaps the only novel you will ever read that dwells on the silenced and shadowed parts in human relationships. It is an odd work of art that philosophically tackles a very under-discussed topic. Depending on the way you interpret it, then, The Course of Love may read like a cautionary tale or a calming, enlightening, candid affirmation of our human flaws. Its 240-something pages gently educate us on how to soften our harsh edges by learning to be more sympathetic towards, and understanding of, others’ behavior.

To get a taste of the novel, here’s a podcast episode in which Alain discusses snippets of it.

You may order the book by clicking on this link.

Would you read it?

The Course of Love is very much missed in today’s bestsellers’ shelves. Can you name other works of art that deserve to be showcased? Let us know in the comments!

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