I just got back from the beach, where I read ten novels in ten days. (Bliss.)
Over on instagram last week, I used their new stories feature to show you the books I took with me, and hinted at my surprise favorite of the week, which may turn out to be my surprise favorite of the year.
It’s a slim novel—just 233 pages. I didn’t plan on reading it at the beach, but turned to my kindle in desperation when I ran out of good hardcovers. I can’t remember how or why I downloaded the ARC. I can’t remember how I even heard about it, and it wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t like anything I’ve ever read.
It’s unusual, and requires some caveats, which is why I didn’t just show you the cover on instagram and move on.
The book is The Course of Love by Alain de Botton, a philosopher who’s better known for his non-fiction works (How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Architecture of Happiness) dealing with what he calls “the philosophy of ordinary life.”
In this novel, De Botton blends philosophy and fiction, which might strike you as either as dead-boring or disastrous. It’s neither.
This is the story of a marriage over the course of fourteen years. The novel is called The Course of Love (which, remember, never did run smooth), and that’s what he wants to show us: not just the meet-cute, or the wedding bells—that’s only the beginning of any couple’s love story. De Botton starts us at the beginning of their story—before the beginning, actually. And then he takes us through their lives, year by year, unpacking what’s happening, and why.
This marriage isn’t filled with the stuff that usually makes great fiction: De Botton tells us from the start the couple “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. This will be the real love story.”
These are developed, well-rounded characters, but what’s striking is how ordinary they are. If they didn’t live across the ocean in Edinburgh, they could be my friends, neighbors, schoolmates. They could be us. Over the course of 200 pages, we become deeply invested in their rather regular lives. Who knew people like us could be so interesting?
Two years ago I wrote here about the bored housewife as a plot point in fiction. I’d just finished two books that made me realize that the housewife is an oft-used trope, rarely done well. In fiction, ordinary domestic life is either drenched in cliché or the backdrop for a murder plot.
By taking us deeply into the lives of others, fiction builds empathy. By reflecting our own lives back to us, fiction speaks into those lives, offering insights we can only grasp through the lens of someone else’s story. But if you find yourself living a rather ordinary life, it’s terribly difficult to find fictional characters whose lives mirror yours in any meaningful way. This feels like a missed opportunity.
And that’s why I loved this book, explicitly about an ordinary marriage. In the text, De Botton’s narrator observes this couple he’s created, and wonders if they wouldn’t be able to navigate the tricky spots a little better if they had seen their own struggles sympathetically reflected back to them.
He says, after one marital spat, “Were [our couple] able to read about themselves as characters in a novel, they might … experience a brief but helpful burst of pity at their not at all unworthy plight, and thereby perhaps learn to dissolve some of the tension that arises on those evenings when, once the children are in bed, the apparently demoralising and yet in truth deeply grand and significant topic of ironing comes up.”
Because they were so relatable—because they felt like they could be my friends—I forgave this novel a few things I usually would flinch at. (Likewise, dear friends have told me things at my kitchen table I’ve flinched at—and I wouldn’t have it otherwise—and more so than most, this story is supposed to be about real lives.) I’m no prude, but it employs a word that’s usually a dealbreaker for me, twice. The author showed me why he picked that word, and I saw his point. I’m not convinced of all his philosophies about love and sex and married life, but that’s okay. I’m looking for a thought-provoking discussion starter, not a treatise.
In the novel, one of De Botton’s characters says, “Love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm.” Through his characters, he shows us what this means, what it looks like—and because he pulls it off, I found this work tremendously hopeful.
If you’re a reader, I hope you know the delight of stumbling upon a book that absolutely and unexpectedly wows you. That’s how I felt with this one.
There’s so much to talk about here! I’d love to hear your thoughts on Alain de Botton, fiction that reflects our lives back to us, love as a skill, and the books that unexpectedly wowed you here in comments.
Books mentioned in this post: