Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
(Picador, 2006, 212 pages)
Alain de Botton writes practically and eloquently about big issues. I’ve really enjoyed his books The Architecture of Happiness and Religion for Atheists, as well as some of his lectures. I was aware that he had written a “novel” – the quotation marks are important – years ago (originally published in 1993), but I hadn’t taken the time to read it. Having recently seen that de Botton has written another novel that is about to be released, I thought I’d check out the first one.
The book tells the story of two people who meet on an airplane and fall in love. Each chapter looks at a different aspect of the relationship as it develops. From initial attraction (“Romantic Fatalism”) to the uncertainty of pursuit (“The Subtext of Seduction”) to the ambivalence of romantic feelings (“Intermittences of the Heart”) and finally to the unraveling of a relationship (“Romantic Terrorism”) and the suffering that follows (“Psycho-Fatalism”), the story of a relationship is told from the hopeful beginning to the bitter end. It is told from the perspective of the male narrator as he reflects on, analyzes, and investigates the emotional, philosophical, and psychological pitfalls of love.
Though the book has a narrative framework, it is not really a novel. In fact, the title can be taken at face value. These are really topical essays on romance that are strung together by a (not always convincing) love story. This unconventional format, while interesting, doesn’t work at every point. However, the book contains exactly what I’ve come to expect from de Botton – eminently quotable lines:
“Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge.” (14)
“We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as ideal as we are corrupt.” (41)
“It may be a sign that two people have stopped loving one another … when they are no longer able to spin differences into jokes.” (71)
“We start trying to be wise when we realize that we are not born knowing how to live, but that life is a skill that has to be acquired, like riding a bicycle or playing the piano.” (201)