The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
This may sound strange, but I think that one of the best things about having gone through the process of being married in a Catholic church is the fact that one of their requirements is that you take an approved pre-marriage course. If you don’t do this, they won’t perform the ceremony. Sounds a little strait-laced, right? But no, it’s smart. I don’t know if they’re all like this, but I was pleasantly surprised by the course my husband and I took. I expected it to be very religious in content, but it was really just regular relationship counselling. The Course of Love would be the perfect text book for one of these classes. It uses the story of a couple’s relationship — from first meeting to first tryst to first child and beyond — to illustrate how our lives, particularly our childhoods, shape us. This shaping affects everything about us, but especially how we form relationships, what we expect from them and how we behave when we’re in them.
The narrative tells us about the course of the relationship between Rabih and Kirsten. The story pauses for frequent asides that explain the psychological aspects of the issue being discussed in a more general sense, and then Rabih and Kirsten’s life demonstrates these in a manner we can relate to. Everyone will recognise some of these situations from their own relationships, whether it’s the starting a terrible argument over something as insignificant as selecting drinking glasses, or even how an affair can start when people still love each other.
My only beef with this book is that the cover bears the subtitle ‘a novel’. Prior to reading it, I had read that this was the first novel that Alain de Botton had written for goodness knows how many years. This is not a novel. It is an interesting, insightful book, but it’s not a novel. Sure, it has a fictionalised story in it, but I don’t think that makes it a novel. It’s a long-format case study. The characters and everything that happens to them are designed to illustrate a point. There’s something lacking in this book that keeps it from achieving novel status for me. The characters, while appearing in realistic situations, didn’t feel real themselves. It lacked the punch of real emotion or suspense… I didn’t feel emotionally invested in them or particularly curious to know what would happen to them.
The interest of The Course of Love is not “what happens to Rabih and Kirsten?”, but recognising yourself in the behaviours they display. It’s realising that we each have our own special brand of crazy that other people have to deal with. Nothing is perfect, nothing is smooth. That’s normal and OK, but we need to develop our self-awareness to be able to work at achieving the relationships that we want.
And this book is a good start at that.