Alain de Botton’s new novel “The Course of Love” looks at the history and psychology of marriage through one couple living and loving in Edinburgh. De Botton appears Wednesday, June 22, at the Seattle Public Library.
“Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distractingly moving moments,” Alain de Botton writes in one of the essayistic interludes in his new novel. “We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue.”
“The Course of Love” (Simon & Schuster, 226 pp., $26) aims to remedy that.
It examines the love lives of its married protagonists, Rabih Khan and Kirsten McLelland, from their midteens to their mid-40s. Both philosophical and anecdotal, it touches on the history of marriage as an institution and on the psychology of a sometimes strangely adversarial codependence.
Alain de Botton
The author of “The Course of Love” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 22, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave.; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
Best of all, it’s a living, volatile portrait of how two very different souls love, complement and aggravate each other. You may not agree with all of de Botton’s thoughts on marriage, but it’s wonderful how he makes such a big, sweeping subject out of routine existence.
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Rabih, an architect living in Edinburgh, is the son of a Lebanese civil engineer and a German air hostess who died when her son was only 13. He comes from a cosmopolitan but unstable background (some of his boyhood was spent in war-torn Beirut). He’s been a little lost since his father married “an emotionally distant Englishwoman” just one year after his first wife’s death.
Kirsten, a Scottish native working in municipal administration, also copes with parental issues. Her father abandoned the family when she was only 7 and hasn’t been heard of since.
De Botton briskly leads us through their workplace romance and decision to marry. Rabih, we’re told, “loves from a feeling of incompleteness.” Kirsten is “likewise seeking to make up for deficiencies.”
Once the nuptials are out of the way, de Botton gets down to business. The drama of their lives is powered by workplace frustrations, money worries, occasional doubts about how much each still desires the other, and occasional concerns that they’re not doing as well in life as their friends. Their disagreements can be over trivial matters — like what kind of drinking glasses to buy at Ikea — and their reconciliations, once tempers subside, are common-sensical and even oddly cosmic in perspective.
Their Ikea-triggered dispute, for instance, is defused by taking a walk through Scottish hills “created through the compression of sedimentary rocks in the Ordovician and Silurian periods (some four hundred fifty million years before Ikea was founded).”
Parenthood, betrayal, couples therapy — all reveal another facet or dynamic of their love and the threats to it. De Botton alternates straightforward narrative with agile commentaries on the nature of love and marriage that are a delight throughout. (His dissection of what’s involved in “a sulk” is worth the price of the book alone.)
De Botton’s psychologizing can occasionally feel too deterministic. But his uncanny access to Rabih’s and Kirsten’s contrasting feelings, aspirations, insecurities and resentments at every changing stage of their love lives makes the novel a marvel.
One odd note: De Botton’s publisher is promoting this as his first novel since “On Love.” But he published two other wonderful novels early in his career — “The Romantic Movement” and “Kiss and Tell” — neither of which he acknowledges any longer on his website.