We’ve all been through break-ups. When a relationship ends, our response falls somewhere between shrugging our shoulders and crawling in a hole. In either case, rumination and reflection is inevitable, as massive life change demands at least a glimpse from that hole. On Love is surely the result of an extended such stint, a perspicacious novel that does a remarkable job of detailing the finer points of a nearly universal human experience through a singular example.
Exactly what this book is is difficult to pin down. It’s a novel, of course, but one that’s part humorist’s rumination, part case study, and part philosophical treatise. It’s an intellectual book, drawing all sorts of connections to philosophical thought. Yet at the same time it is grounded in a cultural reality, very much an investigation of a love affair particular to the post-sexual revolution era, one in which the power dynamic in a couple is both liberated and, perhaps in its freeness, more fractious. There’s a certain longing on display here, one which we’ve all experienced to some degree, for the type of everlasting storybook love promised us by media, or by the superficial observation of those around us, maybe even by the postwar social mores that demanded the suppression of marital discord by our grandparents’ “greatest” generation.
This is a narcissistic book, but then, love is a narcissistic emotion. Even in its most innocent manifestation, feelings of love are rooted in some sort of selfish need or desire. Love and happiness are not one in the same. Happiness is obtainable, but love, de Botton’s nameless narrator would argue, requires ethereal impermanence just beyond our grasp in order to maintain its essence. Absolute and essential love is real, and no more possible to catch and contain than a shadow. The book charts this narrator’s relationship with a woman named Chloe from initial infatuation through its ultimate demise and his subsequent depression and rebound. He catalogs the different epochs of a love affair in different stages which also work as chapter headings.
Here are a few:
A long, gloomy tradition in Western thought argues that love is in its essence an unreciprocated, Marxist emotion and that desire can only thrive on the impossibility of mutuality.
The Fear of Happiness -
the only difference between the end of love and the end of life being that at least in the latter, we are granted the comforting thought that we will not feel anything after death.
Romantic Terrorism -
the product of irredeemable situations, a gamut of tricks (sulking, jealousy, guilt) that attempt to force the partner to return love… The terroristic partner knows he cannot realistically hope to see his love reciprocated, but the futility of something is not always (in love or in politics) a sufficient argument against it.
I felt I had lost the ability to control my destiny and had witnessed a childish, petulant demon take charge of me, make me smile, encourage me to feel safe, and then smash me onto the rocks. I was a character in a narrative whose grander design I was helpless to alter. I repented for the arrogance of my previous faith in free will.
The majority of the book recounts the relationship with Chloe while it is still functioning, but the tone is always introspective and critical of the anatomy of a relationship–yet told with a clarity and confidence that feels almost objective. Honest, clever and at times funny, this is an insightful and constantly relatable read. Alain de Botton is a phenomenal writer to boot, so even in its darker moments, On Love is a joy to read.
Similar Reads:Television (Toussaint), Flaubert’s Parrot (Barnes), The Anthologist (Baker); the movie Swingers.