The Course of Love

SUMMARY – The 10-second review

The Course of Love: A Novel | Alain de Botton

The Course of Love: A Novel is not really a novel*, but rather a series of essays or reflections on romantic love, illustrated by scenes in the life of Rabih and Kirsten. Rabih is a Romantic, and theirs is a love story, of sorts. But de Botton eschews the conventions of the romantic tale to analyse their relationship with clinical objectivity.

Any young couple, setting out on a planned life together, could well benefit from reading this book, if for no other reason than to see that they are really not that different from other people. We all behave irrationally a lot of the time, and no matter how much we love someone, we inevitably behave badly towards them. Much of our behavior when we are in a couple stems from unrealistic expectations and from unconscious reactions based on our childhood. Especially our bad behavior.

This book is a good warning that you should not nourish inflated notions of relationships (and marriage), based on romantic fiction. Instead, we should realize that one person can’t be everything to another: we can only ever aspire to a “good enough” marriage. de Botton calls this enlightened romantic pessimism.

I’d recommend this book for young couples. Indeed it might make a good, if somewhat mischievous, engagement gift. Give it early enough to allow the couple time to decide if they still want to go through with it!

It might also be a useful book to read for anyone ‘madly in love’ and possibly on the verge of making a poor decision based on false notions of romantic love.


de Botton is a co-founder of The School of Life, which describes itself as “an educational company that offers advice on life issues”. They’re known for the many short, free videos they make available on YouTube. He’s also written several books. Call it psychology-light, call it self-help, call it whatever you want, but don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Some readers may find it too superficial or think I know all this already. But we all have our blind spots, and you may still be surprised.

The book’s main message is simple. One Amazon reviewer put it succinctly:  “don’t get married because of love, as romantic love is temporary, so make sure you get married to someone with whom you can get along”.

That said, I think there’s still a benefit in reading the whole book. The devil is in the detail, and that’s where you’ll find the insights that might strike a particular chord with you.

It’s clear from his work that de Botton is a fan of psychotherapy. I am too, so I applaud de Botton and his colleagues for the work they do to try to make psychology and therapy more accessible to more people. Psychotherapy should not be reserved for the wealthy (or the sad or mad). For people who don’t know a lot about human psychology, this book is a pretty good introduction. The novelistic approach makes it a very easy read. The essays about love and relationships are fairly light and digestible. This is by no means a heavy, academic book about psychology.

Enjoy it for the insights

The Course of Love is particularly good in its detailing of the ‘silly things’: the trivial, day-to-day irritations that can cause profound tension in a relationship.

de Botton points out the foolishness of trying to make it through life with another person without taking these ‘silly things’ seriously. Most of us act as if we somehow expect our life as a couple to run smoothly, and when it doesn’t we are surprised at how things got this bad over so little. For example, we observe Rabih and Kirsten’s increasing irritation with each other when it comes to punctuality. Getting ready and going out for a meal together becomes a minefield. Their story illustrates how tensions can build at home when we find our partner’s behavior irritating. So irritating that we wonder how on earth we’ll manage to tolerate it for the rest of our lives. And yet we do nothing to manage the root causes of this irritation:

“We allow for complexity, and therefore make accommodations for disagreement and its patient resolution, in most of the big areas of life: international trade, immigration, oncology… But when it comes to domestic existence, we tend to make a fateful presumption of ease, which in turn inspires in us a tense aversion to protracted negotiation. We would think it peculiar indeed to devote a two-day summit to the management of a bathroom, and positively absurd to hire a professional mediator to help us identify the right time to leave the house to go out for dinner.”

The Course of Love | Alain de Botton

Later, he talks about how having children teaches us valuable lessons about love, but that we somehow fail to apply them in our relationship with our spouse:

“The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior. […]
How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships — if here, too, we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognize the fear, confusion, and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.”

The Course of Love | Alain de Botton

One could argue that you can’t compare your relationship with your child with your relationship with your spouse; otherwise you would start to see and treat your spouse as a child, which would not be healthy! Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that tensions might be reduced at home if only we treated our partner with a bit more kindness and tolerance. D’uh!

*It’s NOT a novel!

I can’t let this stand without pointing out that, despite its title, The Course of Love: A Novel is not a novel. It’s a long essay, or rather a series of short essays, about relationships, interspersed with vignettes of scenes in the life of a fictional couple. These function as anecdotes illustrating the points in the essays.

Can somebody please tell somebody: That’s not how novels work! At best it’s a novella, constantly interrupted by commentary. Now one could argue that it doesn’t really matter, and there is no fixed definition of what a novel is, but I argue that it does matter. Because if I buy a novel, I want to get a novel. And if I buy nonfiction or self-help, that’s fine, but tell me up front that’s what I’m getting, before I buy the book.

Now I’ve got that out of my system, I can say that I still recommend the book. Just don’t tell anyone it’s a novel.

You might prefer an actual novel about love and marriage. This one’s great: The Marriage Plot | Jeffrey Eugenides

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