Honestly, I don’t know how to rate this novel by Alain de Botton because it does not read at all like a novel. While de Botton is undoubtedly a highly competent writer, I kept on thinking of this piece as a thinly-disguised self-help book about marriage and the vicissitudes of long-term love relationships.
Reading the blurb inside the front cover, I can appreciate the difficulty: this is his first novel in two decades. It seems he has been pumping out works of non-fiction for most of his writing career. Perhaps he has simply lost the knack of story-telling.
The characters are distant, hidden behind an unseen narrator who observes and provides a running commentary about the various stages of their relationship. We are told rather than shown who the characters are, what they do, and what they think about. Take this paragraph as an example, selected by randomly opening the book (at page 48).
“They’ve reached the point where, by rights, their story – always slight – should draw to a close. The Romantic challenge is behind them. Life will from now on assume a steady, repetitive rhythm, to the extent that they will often find it hard to locate a specific event in time, so similar will the years appear in their outward form.”
Interspersed amongst the ‘narrative’, are italicised paragraphs of ‘advice’ about long-term relationships. On page 49, in which a visit to a homewares store ends in an argument about whether our married couple should buy the plain glass tumblers or the ones with blue and purple swirls, a section of ‘advice’ reads:
“Romanticism is a philosophy of intuitive agreement. In real love, there is no need tiresomely to articulate or spell things out. When two people belong together, there is simply – at long last – a wondrous reciprocal feeling that both parties see the world in precisely the same way.”
While some of this advice might ring true (and some will surely raise a smile), de Botton’s pronouncements often come across as presumptuous and paternalistic.
As I said, I don’t know what to make of this book. I would have preferred to read either a straight-out work of fiction or a researched non-fiction about relationships. In attempting to blend the two together, de Botton has achieved neither.
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