The Course of Love by Alain de Botton follows the lives of Kirsten and Rabih Khan. We journey with them from the time of their meeting as work associates, through their courtship, early years of marriage and then as the parents of babes who grow into teens. It explores the way we communicate in a marriage, how this can enhance – or harm – our relationship. It is about the changing nature of the relationship between spouses throughout the course of their marriage. It is about love – how it shapes us and what it demands of us. De Botton intersperses the narrative of Kirsten and Rabih’s lives with philosophical insights which at times explain their behaviour towards each other; at other times, they provide insight into how they could improve their communication. As I was reading the novel, I was constantly asking myself if it was a dissection of a marriage, an instruction manual, an explanation. In then end, it doesn’t matter what it is; what matters is that it is, at least for those of us who are married – or in a long term relationship – a thoroughly relatable, and salutary, story.
De Botton writes with the candour that has made him so successful at bringing philosophy to the wider population. He makes us think about what is happening in our relationship, in effect using Kirsten and Rabih as a case study. What is it that causes the little niggles between us? What is the best response to coping with any barbs that may spring from our partner’s mouth? Is it true that we should be honest with each other at all times? Is keeping secrets consistent with love? Is our perception of what makes a ‘happy marriage’ out of step with how marriage plays out in real life? This is articulately explained, towards the end of the novel, when he writes
By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory…we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life…we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.
The novel, and de Botton’s insights, provide a realistic portrayal of marriage. There are times of joy, drudgery, uncertainty of feelings but the marriage endures. I found it to be a novel of encouragement and hope – that if we accept ourselves and our partner as flawed, and that our relationship is not always going to be perfect, that we can make our marriage endure. A highly recommended read.