Boy meets girl, they fall in love… and then what?
Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love is billed as an ‘unparalleled meditation on modern relationships’. Half philosophy and half fiction, it follows the lives of a couple, Rabih and Kristen, as they fall in love, navigate marriage and children, and the perils of maintaining a monogynous relationship. Topics include attachment theory, marriage counselling, and relationship dynamics. Spoilers ahead!
A complicated relationship
The Course of Love is undoubtedly a unique book. On one hand, you have a central love story between two imperfect characters, who are trying to navigate their complicated feelings about themselves – and each other – in order to make their relationship work.
Chapters are filled with examinations of everyday details of relationship dynamics – whether it’s projecting your own anger and insecurities onto a partner, navigating when to push an issue or let it go, or having stubborn moments about something inconsequential (like which drinking glasses to buy in Ikea). For those of us in long-term relationships, many of these moments are highly relatable. Rabih and Kristen allow us to reflect on how we communicate with our partners, what is left unsaid, and how we can work towards a little more emotional maturity.
However, despite spending so much time with each character, at the end of the book we did not really feel invested in their love story. To be fair, The Course of Love is not written like a traditional fiction novel – and it doesn’t have a typical story ‘arc’. This results in their love story feeling not particularly engaging. Plus, big moments like Rabih’s moment of infidelity read as frustrating rather than intriguing; Rabih suffers the consequences (emotional turmoil), but there is no confrontation, so Kristen never learns of what happened. Only Rabih grows from the experience. This may be realistic to how many affairs play out, but as readers, we wanted more.
On the other hand, Rabih and Kristen’s story is interwoven with italics – interruptions from the author, essay-style, reflecting on relationship dynamics, trends, and complications. When we read this novel for our Book Club, these sections were controversial, with some friends loving them and others hating them. Overall, we were not fans.
There were certainly moments of brilliance. For example, near the start of the book, the author reflects on how Western society tends not to focus on the ‘what next’ parts of romance:
But: the sheer amount of overgeneralisation is painful. In these essay-like sections, the author treats Rabih and Kristen’s story as an illustration of the woes we all experience in long-term relationships. It’s almost like they are seen as a template for typical issues and insecurities. Which left us frustrated. Because, we, as readers, are not Rabih and Kristen. We may relate to some elements of their story, but many we do not relate to. We understand, of course, that is not necessarily what the author was intending, but it definitely reads that way at times.
Rabih and Kristen eventually attends couples counselling, which is great! We are here for this book encouraging and normalising couples counselling, especially since the therapist is actually ethical and quite good at her job. (We live in dread of the unethical psychologist that so often pops up in fiction). Rabih and Kristen learn about attachment, and how their different styles (his style is anxious, hers is avoidant) may colour the way each of them respond to a situation and lead to conflict. Briefly, attachment theory is the idea that our relationship with our primary caregiver sets the blueprint for how we approach other relationships. We covered attachment styles in more details in our Novel Tropes episode about commitment issues.
We enjoyed the explanation about attachment styles in the book, as they were largely accurate (though De Botton left out the disorganised attachment style). We also liked how Rabih and Kristen learned to understand themselves and their responses to conflict in therapy, and that they actually applied what they learned to real life. On the other hand, the novel presents attachment styles as fixed. At one stage, Rabih and Kristen joked about ‘becoming avoidant’. We would have liked to see Rabih and Kristen work more within themselves to recognise and change their own unhelpful habits more explicitly (e.g. learning to communicate effectively), rather than say ‘I have an avoidant attachment style so I will always react badly to this particular thing’. Also, attachment is not the only factor that goes into whether a relationship works or not; even two individuals with secure attachment styles can still have a difficult relationship. Over-simplifications like this are just not ideal.
Final Thoughts and Star Rating
Priscilla: As a romantic person/romance reader, I tend to bristle at the suggestion that people who are romantic are illogical or so starry-eyed that they can’t be intelligent or realistic about relationships. The tone this book takes at times seems to suggest exactly that, so I was uncomfortable a lot of the time. It didn’t help that parts of the book generalises the experience of this specific fictional couple (one that the author created to support his points) to every relationship. The main message of the book – that love is a skill and relationships take work – is very valid, but I did not enjoy the way it was packaged.
Elise: I feel like the overarching messages of The Course of Love are valid and important. I completely agree that long-term relationships are work, and that we need to work on ourselves and how we relate to one another in order to have peace in a relationship. But the way in which this story is told just didn’t work for me. At best, I found it mildly interesting; at worst, irritating and patronising. Maybe it’s just not the book for me, but I do recognise that some people found this powerful and valuable.
Links and suggestions:
- Read more about attachment styles here.