Fairy tales end with the two lovers marrying. After sealing the deal with True Love’s Kiss, they live happily ever after. This notion has no basis in reality. In real life, you still have to get up again the next morning, likely with breath seasoned by garlic and wine consumed the night before, and yet these romantic fantasies color the minds of people pondering what it means to commit yourself to someone for the rest of your life.
Alain de Botton’s new novel, The Course of Love,* takes a different approach. He wants to tell the whole of the story of the first dozen-odd years of the marriage between two ordinary people: Kirsten, a small town Scottish woman who now works for Edinburgh’s town planning council, and Rabih Khan, a more cosmopolitan man of Lebanese descent who’s come to Edinburgh to work for an urban planning firm. The two young lovers meet and fall passionately in love. Is that the end? Hardly. Told mostly from Rabih’s point of view, in this story we learn that “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.” And yet they stay together, and by the end are as in love as they have been, because love grows through familiarity and making conscious choices over time. “This,” de Botton writes, “will be the real love story.”
I am celebrating 12 years of marriage this week, and so some parts of this course of love felt familiar. (Well, not the affair part – I think) There is that first realization that you are really, really having fun with the other person. There is a whirlwind courtship. There are a few early fights over such things as IKEA tumblers (Kirsten and Rabih leave the store in a huff, though they eventually settle on a dozen they can live with). These spats make the couple wonder if they have chosen the wrong person, but the truth is that everybody chooses the wrong person in the sense that there is no one right person. I mean, really, what are the odds that if you did have a soul mate, that person would not only live during your time on earth, relatively near you, be of the gender you prefer, and be single and of marriageable age while you were looking?
Instead, in de Botton’s phrasing, the best marriage vow might be “We have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is to each other we have chosen to bind ourselves.” Cheery that!
I don’t find this so shocking, but then again, I am a realist. I was not the kind of girl who daydreamed about my wedding. I don’t know if my husband is my soul mate. I do know that he’s a good man and that we are raising four beautiful (and stubborn and ornery) children together, and that when I see him across the room at parties, I think he’s hot. Perhaps less so when he’s wearing the new glasses he bought on the advice of people who said they make him look more hip, but I guess of all my “options for unhappiness” that is a pretty minor one.
Rabih and Kirsten are painted well, so that you see their flaws and still care about them. At first I thought de Botton’s portrayal of parenthood was a bit much (the Khans are just so in love with little Esther!) but then a few chapters in, he gets more into the logistics, and their fights over the ironing, and the tedium of life with little ones, and its compromises (Kirsten works a 3-day week but fields work phone calls on her days “off” as “Her colleagues seem to have a hard time remembering she’s not in the office on Thursdays or Fridays.”)
The one major flaw in this novel is that de Botton is a philosopher and he just can’t control his philosophizing on what the characters are experiencing. Throughout the book, the Khans will do something, and then de Botton, in italics, will psychoanalyze their problems. At one point, the italics go on for about 2 pages. With that kind of length, it’s not a seasoning, it’s the main thing. Sometimes the philosophizing is repetitive (“Rabih is ready for marriage because…” again and again). Sometimes it states the obvious, and is not nearly as interesting as the Khans’ marriage. When (spoiler alert!) Rabih hooks up with a fellow urban planner at a conference, de Botton goes on at length on his theory that sometimes infidelity is not what we think it is. It is hard to be monogamous with one person for decades, especially since part of sexual attraction is newness and uncertainty. Rabih is deeply in love with Kirsten, and de Botton advances the theory that his concealing the affair is a noble gesture, as it is not worth destroying his family over. This is an interesting line of thought, but he abandons this utilitarian theory of infidelity by the end as unworkable within the limits of the human psyche, which experiences jealousy so strongly. I get his point, but it would have been better just to see the Khans grapple with these issues, rather than de Botton explaining them.
As my writing teachers always said, show don’t tell.
At the end of the novel, the Khans take a weekend away, dropping the kids off with a cousin. The children are furious, and complain when they are reunited with their parents about being abandoned like orphans and forced to sleep in a room that smelt of dog. But the couple has become wise enough to life that Rabih tries to capture small moments of happiness, like when they are all hiking in the highlands and enjoying themselves. You seize what you can, since soon the kids will be complaining. You seize what you can in a world where you once thought you would be a famous architect, and now you know that the sum total of your professional accomplishments is a shed somewhere that you designed. It is OK. There is bravery in stoically living real life too.
I read this book on the plane to and from Orlando last Thursday, and returned home feeling both nostalgic and happy about my own marriage. Of course, my being gone meant my husband had taken care of four small children all day. The toddler, he informed me, had skipped his nap. He was consequently too fragged to talk or do anything else. Oh well. The course of love.
*I don’t have any affiliate accounts as a matter of blog policy. If you would like to purchase this book, please do so through Modern Mrs. Darcy’s links as she is the one who first clued me in to this book!