More treatise than novel, this book takes a forensic approach to marriage.
De Botton, a Swiss-born intellectual and TED-talker who lives in London, has long been preoccupied with human weakness, offering tips to overcome it. Via such nonfiction hybrids as How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and The Architecture of Happiness (2006), he has charmed and edified millions of readers. Now de Botton circles back to fiction—his only previous novel, On Love (1993), pondered the custom of falling in and out of love—with the story of a marriage. He presents a case study of a “Scottish wife and her Middle Eastern husband,” one Kirsten McLelland and Rabih Khan. The author sums up his plot on Page 16: “They will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair...”; he has no interest in quotidian suspense. De Botton supplies some nice insights on kindness and can certainly turn a phrase—“there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry”—but he makes this story a slog. He punctuates it with long, italicized paragraphs of psychologizing, some of it banal and some of it poppycock. It’s as if a fussy uncle has hijacked one’s reading. Without naming him, de Botton leans heavily on Freud, depicting his couple as stymied by childhood traumas (her father abandons her; his mother dies) and infantile longings. The straw men here are “Romanticism” and sexual fidelity, which de Botton seems to find equally absurd. (Rabih, a middling architect, does a lot of whining about monogamy.) There is a reason the heart on the book’s cover is black, although Kirsten and Rabih seem to do a better job than most: “It’s the sticking around that is the weird and exotic achievement.”
A philosopher of the everyday can’t help but write marriage as a primer.