By the time 31-year-old Rabih Khan leaves London to work for an urban-design firm in Edinburgh, he has yet to find what proponents of Romanticism would call “a comprehensive answer to the unspoken questions of existence”: the so-called perfect mate. But Khan, an architect and atheist of Muslim descent, thinks he has found her when he meets Kirsten McClelland, an Inverness native who is the client contact on a construction project. Their relationship is the basis for The Course of Love, philosopher Alain de Botton’s first novel since 1993’s Essays in Love.
If you know anything about de Botton, then you already know that The Course of Love isn’t a simple portrait of a marriage. And if you don’t know his work, then the black heart that dominates the book’s cover will give you an indication of his greater goal. The Course of Love is a philosophical analysis of modern love and a challenge to the Romantic ideals that Rabih harbored in his youth.
During his and Kirsten’s first dinner together—most of the novel is from his perspective—Rabih delights in her habit of starting sentences with “Here’s a thing…” and concludes that he has finally found someone with “intelligence and kindness, humor and beauty, sincerity and courage; someone whom he would miss if she left the room.” She invites him to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, where they share their first kiss. They are soon married, but not before Kirsten’s mother, whose husband left when Kirsten was seven, tells Rabih that her daughter never sang another note after her father’s abandonment, despite her gift for music. “[S]he is—as much as the rules allow—asking Rabih not to ruin Kirsten’s life.”
The action of The Course of Love is a linear sequence of the key moments of their union: their Paris honeymoon, portentous squabbles over the ideal bedroom temperature and the most sensible drinking glasses to purchase, concerns about layoffs at Rabih’s firm, the births of their son and daughter. And there are hints of infidelity when Rabih fantasizes about the 21-year-old daughter of the owners of a café they frequent, and then, well after the couple’s children are born, actual betrayal when Rabih meets a young American woman at a conference in Berlin.
The Course of Love is not so much a novel as an excuse for De Botton to offer commentary on love and romance, which he does on every page or two with italicized philosophical mini-treatises. Many of these attempts at sophistication, however, are merely elaborate statements of obvious points. A typical sentence is, “[G]enuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior,” which is a fancy way of saying: If you truly love someone who’s suffering, do everything you can to understand and alleviate the pain.
De Botton is more original when he challenges accepted notions of Romanticism, as when he writes, “The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace.” The Course of Love is at its strongest in these passages. They distinguish the book from run-of-the-mill works about love and even offer comfort to couples whose unions aren’t the storybook romance they had once envisioned. The magic of that first kiss may be gone, but, if you’re lucky, the garden will still have plenty of blossoms.