Love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm.

Love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm.

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:

The Course of Love: A Novel

The Course of Love: A Novel

"The Course of Love is a return to the form that made Mr. de Botton’s name in the mid-1990s….love is the subject best suited to his obsessive aphorizing, and in this novel he again shows off his ability to pin our hopes, methods and insecurities to the page." — The New York Times More info →
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55 comments

  1. ann a says:

    This reminds me of a nonfiction book (on love) I am reading–especially because, just two hours ago, I read a section contrasting the Hebrew philosophy of life with others (including Greek: Hebrew=J curve, Greek=circle). The book is called “A Loving Life” (subtitle: “In a World of Broken Relationships”) by Paul E. Miller. It is both challenging and affirming my experiences and understanding of love. When I took it to the desk at the library, the librarian’s eyes filled with tears, as she told me she was so glad I had found it. She said it had changed the way she loves. I recommend it.

    • Susie says:

      Ann – This book (“A Loving Life”) has popped up twice in the last two days as a recommended read. I’ll take that as a clear sign I need to put it on my reading list. Thanks for the nudge!

  2. Heather M. in AL says:

    I’m looking forward to picking this one up. When I discovered Elizabeth Berg in the 90s as a first-year public librarian, I felt the way you described — that her books reflected ordinary people living ordinary lives. I thought they were lyrical and honest and lovely, even when they were tragic (in very ordinary ways, of course).

  3. Christina says:

    …just placed a hold on this at the library and I can’t WAIT! It sounds like something I will really enjoy in my current season of life. Stellar post, by the way! While you’re on the heels of the annual survey, I’ll go on record as saying this encompasses my very favorite aspects of your writing: solid book recommendations, wrapped in thoughtful life-reflections. This was a morning-brightener for me! Thanks! 🙂

  4. Ginger says:

    Put this on hold at the library! The author’s description reminds me a bit of Crossing to Safety, which I love. Ordinary lives – marriage, children, suffering, money worries, career worries, discontentment, contentment. All of that is a real love story.

    • SoCalLynn says:

      I came here to say the same-the description reminds me of the two Wallace Stegner books I’ve read. It sounds like something I need to read!

  5. Kim says:

    ^Crossing to Safety is on my hold list. And I actually have an ARc of The Course of Love that I had yet to get around to!

  6. Victoria S says:

    Your reviews are wonderful, thank you for taking the time to craft them so well! My Amazon wish list is now ridiculously long because of MMD. Not necessarily a bad thing. I think this year for Christmas if someone asks me what I want for a gift, I’m sending them the list and telling them to buy me a book. 🙂
    Sidenote: Where you able to find a good fit for your assistant position posted about a few weeks back? I’ve been curious if you were able to find someone local or took the plunge into web/phone-only work.

  7. Susan says:

    I’m intrigued, Anne! I do hesitate because of the deal-breaker words… Just being honest here.

    Also, I filled out the reader’s survey, and in the comments section (you said we could tell you anything!), I copied and pasted an email I had sent you that I don’t think you really got. It was in reply to an email you sent about the Summer Reading Facebook group (I’m not on FB), and that went to “support”. So I just copied and pasted my email to you (all about how you’ve changed my reading life and the books I’ve read because of YOU and this blog) and put it in the comments section. I hope you got it and that it didn’t go over a certain character-limit or anything! I wasn’t expecting a quick reply or anything, I just wanted to make sure you got it ALL! Thanks for all you do here!!

  8. This sounds exactly like the kind of book I’d pick up, but also exactly like the kind of book I’d avoid, for different reasons. I’m really intrigued, though, and will plan to check it out!

  9. Wow, that was a powerful review! I’m getting married next year, so I won’t be able to relate directly to the characters but it sounds like it’s chock full of helpful realism and hope! I’m sure I’ll find many points to keep in mind as I begin the next chapter (get it? haha) with my future husband.

  10. Mary Kate says:

    This sounds really interesting. I love your observation about the bored housewife cliche/background to a murder plot, because that’s pretty much how it always is. Having never been a stay-at-home anything, I can’t really relate, but I’d love to find a story about someone who does that captures my interest and doesn’t make me incredibly depressed (The Awakening, anyone?)

    “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.” I love this observation, as a reader but more so as a writer. Having lived a rather ordinary life myself, I worry sometimes that my fiction will alternatively not be exciting enough or not ring true, but the key is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and bringing it out through the power of good prose. I will definitely be checking out this book!

  11. Diana says:

    Is there a list of the books you took with you? I can’t seem to find it!

    I have no idea how you get so many books read in such a short time. Especially with young kids!

  12. Pamela says:

    I just got this at the library and started yesterday. It’s gorgeous – one of those books you can flip open randomly and find beauty. You described it so beautifully on your blog. Thank you as always for the book recs and I love your podcast!

  13. JA Andrews says:

    “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.” I love this line, too.

    And what it makes me think of (which may be WILDLY off-topic, stylistically at least) is how superbly fulfilling the domestic-ness of Little Women is.

    And this makes me want to write a book about the extraordinary heroic nature of quiet life.

  14. Katie Rosenberg says:

    Well! Clearly I need to read this. I didn’t even fully read your full review (though I will!). After skimming the first few paragraphs, I just *knew* this is a book worth reading. Thanks for the thoughtful recommendation!

  15. Theresa says:

    Sounds like a book I would love. That is the wonderful thing about fiction. Like you mentioned so eloquently, it can teach us so much about ourselves and life and others. The other day I was talking to a 60 some year old lady and she mentioned that she doesn’t understand people very well. I thought that was surprising at her age. We talked further and she admitted that she knew practically nothing about human nature, but her girls did. And then somehow in the conversation it came out that her girls are readers and this lady rarely reads anything. And I thought, ah ha, it is often through reading that we learn about people different from us, about life, about so many things.

  16. I love books that shine a light on the beauty of “ordinary” life. I will definitely put this on my TBR list. Have you read The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant? It was my favorite read of the summer and it sounds like it has some similarities to The Course of Love.

  17. Sounds like a very interesting novel! But I had to look up the term “meet-cute” because it was totally unfamiliar to me.

    Actually I wish it was STILL totally unfamiliar to me.
    🙂

  18. Anne says:

    You have me intrigued, Anne! I love to be wowed like a book, and you got to experience that on vacation! That’s double the points! I’m going to go look this one up.

  19. Erin in CA says:

    Thanks for mentioning his essay on FB — I LOVED that essay when I first read it (and even sent it to my therapist). Just added this book to my real-life reading club for next year. Don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold out reading it, but I’ll try!

  20. Melanie says:

    I put this on my TBR list several weeks ago after listening to and reading several interviews with de Botton. His comments on love and marriage are intriguing: some I agree with and some I take issue with (although I’ve never been married, so I can’t say that I’m evaluating his comments on marriage from personal experience).

    I love books and blog posts that highlight the poignancy and meaning in ordinary, every-day life. I wish I could write that way. I often think that my life would be such a boring novel: go to work everyday at a job I enjoy but isn’t glamorous; go out on what feels like an endless number first dates where sparks don’t fly but nothing horrible happens either; spend evenings cooking, at book club, watching PBS, getting together with friends. My life is a happy one, but probably not entertaining to anyone besides myself!

  21. Andrea says:

    Amazing! I have been asking friends for the past month or so to recommend a book that shows a good marriage over the course of its lifetime. A tough,real marriage with its messy, even ugly, moments, but between to people committed to staying the course. None of my friends could think of any! I have been thinking something similar to the author’s quote you mention above about characters in a book – I think an author, through fictional characters, can reveal observations and wisdom relevant to a situation in a way that would be too awkwardly intimate in a conversation with a friend. I 41, so many of the contemporary marriages I see are in really tough places with kids, parents, work, dry or bitter emotions. I have been longing for a book that might show the value of sticking it out. There are so many books that show cheating, leaving or sadly longing for the past, but few that show how one might proceed with grace through the valleys. Any one have any other suggestions for a good portrait of a marriage that doesn’t simply end in despair?

  22. Charlotte says:

    Perhaps due to the nature of The Architecture Of Happiness, I’ve always avoided this book because I thought it was a self-help book. So thank you for writing this, as it actually sounds like something I’d love!

    Well done on 10 in 10, sounds the perfect vacation

    Charlotte xxx
    http://www.foxsocks.co.uk

  23. Lisa Zahn says:

    I read this book just a week ago, and now I’m racking my brain trying to figure out what deal-breaker word he used–twice! Ha! I have no idea…

    I loved this book too, and was totally surprised by it. It took me a chapter or two to get into the flow, and I almost put it down. I’m so glad I didn’t. The back-and-forth between the story (told more like non-fiction observations as if he’s a fly on the wall in these characters’ lives) and the philosophical remarks IS indeed so different from anything I’ve read before. But by the end, I found myself absolutely in love with the book and I didn’t want to put it down. It ends up to be so poetically told, and so brilliantly descriptive of ordinary life that it’s quite extraordinary.

    I could especially relate to the parenting parts, in particular the drive to be kind to our children that is so common in contemporary parenting, and how such kindness has and must have limits. It really struck me as spot-on observation on do Botton’s part.

  24. Renee Tougas says:

    Thoughts on Alain de Botton – I’m new to his works but recently made his acquaintance on Brainpickings

    https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/15/alain-de-botton-the-course-of-love-communicator/

    What is communicated in that post of Maria’s resonates with how you describe some of his writing here, especially the flinching.

    de Botton says: “What makes people good communicators is, in essence, an ability not to be fazed by the more problematic or offbeat aspects of their own characters. They can contemplate their anger, their sexuality, and their unpopular, awkward, or unfashionable opinions without losing confidence or collapsing into self-disgust. They can speak clearly because they have managed to develop a priceless sense of their own acceptability. They like themselves well enough to believe that they are worthy of, and can win, the goodwill of others if only they have the wherewithal to present themselves with the right degree of patience and imagination.”

    I appreciate your thought-provoking reviews Anne. Thank you. Two of my favorite bloggers/writers have now mentioned Alain de Botton so it’s he’s now on my to-read list.

  25. Missy says:

    Got the book right after I read your review! Thanks for the recommendation…I would never have stumbled across it otherwise! Brilliantly & beautifully written. After just celebrating 16 years of marriage and three kids later…this book was a fresh (and much needed) reminder that love is in fact, a skill, not just an enthusiasm! Thanks for the recommendation! Keep up the great work!

  26. Lacey says:

    I’m just in the middle of this book now – I knew you’d written about it, so I needed to come back here and see what you’d said. It’s brilliant, scarily accurate and laugh out loud funny …. but I’m finding the sections on sex way too graphic and confronting for myself. They are the sections that I wish I could cut out, as you’ve written in the past. Your review is giving me the impetus to continue and perhaps give myself permission to skip some pages/chapters.

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