This Valentine’s day, I will stick to tradition and eat dinner, give a gift, drink some wine, and finish it off with chocolate, all in the name of celebrating love. But this Valentine’s Day I will also remember the realities and challenges of love thanks to the book The Course of Love (2016) by Alain de Botton.
De Botton, who is the founder of a multi-city institution called “The School of Life” and author of other titles such as Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012) and The News: A User’s Manual (2014), is known for his pragmatic stances on emotionally-charged topics. I just discovered his work this year and am excited to read more from him in the future.
But only after taking a long break.
The Course of Love was a beautiful read. As I read I marked many pages to remember a few poignant lines. But it was also sad, and when I finished it I was, unfortunately, sitting on a train during rush hour with no way to hide my tears.
The book, which follows the lives of characters Rabih and Kirsten, reads at once like a novel and an advice column. It is a dissection of a marriage that presents its highs and lows over seventeen years. We see the relationship go through several key phases: love, marriage, children, affair, turmoil, therapy, and, ultimately, acceptance.
The story is told through the eyes of Rabih, and we get more insight into his emotions than his wife’s. He is portrayed as a flawed character who is at times a villain and other times a champion of his long-term relationship.
Along the way, he has a few shocking insights into his marriage such as, “Marriage […] is a deeply peculiar and ultimately unkind thing to inflict on anyone one claims to care for,” and, “Marrying anyone, even the most suitable of beings, comes down to a case of identifying which variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
Occasionally he is softer, like when he admires the beauty of his wife getting ready for work in the morning, or when he cherishes the lines on her stomach from the two children they made together. All of these small steps, negative and positive, bring him closer to discovering what marriage actually means to him. By the end of the book, seventeen years into his marriage, he realizes he is finally ready for marriage because of the following stipulations:
He realizes he will never be fully understood.
He realizes he is crazy.
He realizes it isn’t his wife who is difficult.
He is prepared to love rather than to be loved.
While I disagree that every relationship has as dramatic an arc as Rabih and Kirsten’s, I agree that relationships take work and should only be entered into when each partner is ready for that work. This final sentiment, that love is a skill rather than a savior, might seem disheartening at first. But after drying my tears and ruminating over the book for a week, I think, just like Rabih, that I am ready to accept the optimism in The Course of Love. If love is a skill, then the good news is that we can all improve at it. Perhaps this Valentine’s Day is a good day to start.
The book can be viewed and purchased at alaindebotton.com.