Most love stories traditionally focus on the dramatic heights of romance or bitter breakups through betrayal. “The Course of Love” focuses instead on the interstices between dramatic events in a long-term relationship, those feelings and uncertainties that aren’t mentioned when a couple summarizes the story of their life together at a dinner party. It’s in these unspoken moments where we really live in relationships and where we thrive or falter as a couple. We can only really understand what committing to a relationship means when we look at the quiet unglamorous struggles which take place between couples in daily life. This is the story of Rabih and Kirsten who meet, marry and become parents. Spliced in between their tale are sympathetic ideas about the challenges found in all relationships and how the reality of love doesn’t often match idealistic notions about the story of romance. This makes Alain de Botton’s novel a highly unconventional read, but it is nonetheless intensely felt and deeply meaningful.
It’s skilful how de Botton manages to be rigorously thoughtful in his analytical commentary about what this couple are experiencing in their relationship without detracting from the believability of Rabih and Kirsten’s struggle. There’s an old edict in the school of story telling that you should show and not tell and Alain de Botton does a lot of telling in italicised pauses within the story, yet he does so in a way that smoothly integrates with the conflicts played out through the couple’s actions. I felt engaged by instances like the loss of each of their parents, the heat of their arguments and the passion of their sensual encounters. Their story is unique, yet many of the issues they face are universal. The novel primarily focuses on Rabih’s perspective while also rigorously including Kirsten’s point of view. One of the most touching moments is when Rabih’s comes to a hard realization that he is “anxious to the core, in his most basic make-up: a frightened, ill-adjusted creature.” Instead of annihilating his sense of sense, this confession of vulnerability allows him to awaken to the reality of love.
The author adeptly touches upon feelings which everyone has in relationships, but which we’re afraid to discuss because they might besmirch the enchantment of romance. Instead of seeking a resolution for conflicts like friends who don’t get along with our partners, insecurities caused from past experience, a diminishing sex life, the challenge of child rearing, professional disappointment and infidelity, the author embraces the messiness of these issues to offer surprising and controversial perspectives on how to navigate through them. This is meant as a corrective critique to traditional stories of romance as Rabih finds “the versions of love presented in films and novels so seldom match what he now knows from lived experience.” Instead of giving us a romance with a resolution this novel gives us a meditation upon its unwieldy and often perverse shape. The title takes on a double meaning as the story explores what the longevity of love means, but the book also provides an education on why contradictory impulses might guide the evolution of our relationships. I found this novel a fascinating read which spoke to me personally in many different ways.