Novel: On Love by Alain de Botton | Goodreads
Release Date: January 6, 2006
Publisher: Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press
“The longing for a destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life” we are told at the outset of Alain de Botton’s On Love, a hip, charming, and devastatingly witty rumination on the thrills and pitfalls of romantic love.
The narrator is smitten by Chloe on a Paris-London flight, and by the time they’ve reached the luggage carousel, he knows he is in love. He loves her chestnut hair and pale nape and watery green eyes, the way she drives a car and eats Chinese food, the gap that makes her teeth Kantian and not Platonic, her views on Heidegger’s Being and Time – although he hates her taste in shoes.
On Love plots the course of their affair from the initial delirium of infatuation to the depths of suicidal despair, through the (Groucho) “Marxist” stage of coming to terms with being loved by the unattainable beloved, through a fit of anhedonia, defined in medical texts as a disease resulting from the terror brought on by the threat of utter happiness, and finally through the nausea induced and terrorist tactics employed when the beloved begins, inexplicably, to drift away.
Alain de Botton is simultaneously hilarious and intellectually astute, shifting with ease among such seminal romantic texts as The Divine Comedy, Madame Bovary, and The Bleeding Heart, a self-help book for those who love too much. He is schematically flawless, funny, funky, and totally engaging.
Filled with profound observations and useful diagrams, On Love displays and examines for all of us the pain and exhilaration of love, asking, “Can we not be forgiven if we believe ourselves fated to stumble one day upon the man or woman of our dreams? Can we not be excused a certain superstitious faith in a creature who will prove the solution to our relentless yearnings?”
I know this’ll already be a review that’s mostly made up of lines and examples. This is a book I took to with a black pen and a spare hour or two. I marked it up heavily. I thought of a lot of its points during, and after. I missed my flight in Atlanta, and so I spent my time at the airport combing through it.
It’s technically a novel — there’s a plot, and characters. But it doesn’t have much that happens. It picks apart the processes of falling in and out of love, using moments as springboards for discussions of philosophical concepts. The narrator was absurdly analytical, and universal.
Even though there were a lot of different aspects to both Chloe and the narrator, I truthfully didn’t feel like there was that much characterization. de Botton focused more on the connections between the two, and the strangeness of perception that allowed the narrator to understand Chloe as a person, rather than who they were separately. That decision did allow their experience to feel more universally applicable, however, so I enjoyed the distance required for that view.
I loved the structure. It’s broken up into numbered paragraphs that each tackle different parts of certain questions or ideas. It made for a smooth, organized read that still had lots of room for exploration. He brought in so many references, and they were all rooted in his classical education or musings. The nature of On Love made it rewarding.
It’s also really damn funny. Some parts made me laugh out loud because they are honestly true, in a way that’s almost taboo. Others made me laugh because they’re dry, and clever.
It’s a love story, yes, but it’s more about a personal encounter with “love.” I always say I enjoy books that change my perspective, and On Love definitely did so. It was refreshing to read a methodical take on such an abstract concept, covered in ways that were fiercely logical. It did make me ruminate on the randomness of “loving,” the frustration of being able to empathize but not understand another person, the
de Botton obviously makes assumptions about the ubiquity of these ideas, but there were plenty that I agreed with, or at least found to be interesting. They’re provocative. Some of his musings are stubbornly hopeful, while others are more cynical.
“Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything within it will somehow be free of our faults. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved hope to maintain (against the evidence of all self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species.”
He describes this sense of naïvety required to believe in the institution of love, or this idea of the “perfect” person. He goes on to explore the evolution of loving as the narrator realizes that the object of their affection is in fact human in the same way, that there are details that will bother him, that it’s this nebulous, confusing, immaterial thing.
“To be loved by someone is to realize how much they share the same needs that lie at the heart of our own attraction to them. Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people because, from the outside, they look so whole, physically whole and emotionally ‘together’ – when subjectively we feel dispersed and confused. We would not love if there were no lack within us, but we are offended by the discovery of a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we find only the duplicate of our own problem.”
He discusses the purpose of loving.
“Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone who can understand what we are saying in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved.”
“Perhaps because the origins of a certain kind of love lie in an impulse to escape ourselves and out weaknesses by an alliance with the beautiful and noble. But if the loved ones love us back, we are forced to return to ourselves, and are hence reminded of the things that had driven us into love in the first place. Perhaps it was not love we wanted after all, perhaps it was simply someone in whom to believe, but how can we continue to believe the the beloved now that they believe in us?”
I truthfully got a lot of comfort out of the ideas of randomness and variability that de Botton brought into his analysis of the narrator and Chloe’s relationship — and romance as a whole. In being a person who reads a lot of YA, there are a lot of stories dependent on these ideals of destiny and staying together forever. (In the first chapter, de Botton focuses exclusively on the lack of reason for him and Chloe to have met at all, calculating the exact probabilities of their meeting and whether or not that was important in how much he weighed the relationship.) I don’t necessarily want to say that changed my perspective on romance — I definitely had some of these ideas before — but it sharpened and clarified the way I thought about meetings and encounters.
“We had often read the same books at night in the same bed, and later realized that they had touched us in different places: that they had been different books for each of us. Might the same divergence not occur over a single love-line? I felt like a dandelion releasing hundreds of spores into the air – and not knowing if any of them would get through.”
Also, his analysis of their encounters over time — beginning from their flirtation, their first night together, their later discussions and quirks — was spot-on in a lot of ways I don’t think a lot of people would necessarily admit to. de Botton challenges a lot of societal conceptions.
“Yet we can perhaps only ever fall in love without knowing quite who we have fallen in love with. The initial convulsion is necessarily founded on ignorance.”
“My mistake was to confuse a destiny to love with a destiny to love a specific person. It was the error of thinking that Chloe, rather than love, was inevitable.”
“Interest did not naturally belong to such anecdotes. For the most part, only Chloe and I appreciated them, because of the subsidiary associations we attached to them. Yet these leitmotifs were important because they gave us the feeling that we were far from strangers to one another, that we had lived through things together, and remembered the joint meanings we had derived from them. However slight these leitmotifs were, they acted like cement. The language of intimacy they helped to create was a reminder that (without clearing our way through jungles, slaying dragons, or even sharing apartments) Chloe and I had created something of a world together.”
Some of his musings were also not entirely romantic. A lot of them relate to relationships with other people in general, ourselves, and human nature. As a philosophical gal myself, I loved it.
“The inability to live in the present lies in the fear of leaving the sheltered position of anticipation or memory, and so of admitting that this is the only life that one is ever likely (heavenly intervention aside) to live.”
“Unrequited love may be painful, but it is safely painful, because it does not involve inflicting damage on anyone but oneself, a private pain that is as bitter-sweet as it is self-induced. But as soon as love is reciprocated, one must be prepared to give up the passivity of simply being hurt to take on the responsibility of perpetrating hurt oneself.”
“Everyone returns us to a different sense of ourselves, for we become a little of who they think we are. Our selves could be compared to an amoeba, whose outer walls are elastic, and therefore adapt to the environment. It is not that the amoeba has no dimensions, simply that it has no self-defined shape. It is my absurdist side that an absurdist person will draw out of me, and my seriousness that a serious person will evoke. If someone thinks I am shy, I will probably end up shy, if someone thinks me funny, I am likely to keep cracking jokes.”
“The possibility of an alternative love story is a reminder that the life we are leading is only one of a myriad of possible lives, and it is the impossibility of leading them all that plunges us into sadness.”
That last one got me especially. I think about that often — how I only ever have one life to live, and I’m often stuck reflecting on the choices I have in a way that paralyzes me. How do I pick anything at all, if it means committing to one track? That sense of “nostalgia” is a feeling that de Botton articulates well.
At the root of it, that’s what this book is: an exploration of concepts that de Botton happens to word well. He captures feelings that, for me, were previously nameless or difficult to pinpoint. With or without the love story, this is a narrative I find myself drawn to.
Overall, On Love was an intellectual look at a universal concept. The novel was funny, and sweet in ways. It was startlingly philosophical — I underlined a line on at least every other page. It covers the whole scope: the chance of meeting, the interactions, the evolution into love, and the journey out of it. I loved its fresh perspective, and it definitely makes the favorites list.