Rahib and Kirsten meet in Edinburgh: they go on a few dates, sleep together, meet each other’s parents and enjoy the dizzying wonder of opening their soul to another human being. Rahib proposes; Kirsten accepts; they marry. And that’s where most fictions end: with wedding bells and the start of a new life together, implicitly full of happiness. But Alain De Botton’s thoughtful, wise novel asks a searching question. What if love is not the breathless romantic longing that brings about a marriage, but the hard graft that succeeds it? What if that story, of struggle, compromise, arguments, reconciliation, loneliness, determination and occasional fury was the one really worth reading?
We follow Rahib and Kirsten across the years as they tackle the challenges, great and small, of a common life: job insecurity; money troubles; household chores; the ebbing of physical desire; the struggle to understand another person every hour of the day; the temptation to verity one’s continued desirability through an affair. And of course, through that greatest adventure of all, which eternally changes the dynamic between a married couple and undermines one’s understanding of one’s own self: having children.
This is not a romance novel; nor is it a story which grips you through unexpected twists and turns. It is, quite simply, a perceptive, sensitive, and intelligent chronicle of an ordinary married life. De Botton points out that we have so few models, whether in literature or in the newspapers, of an average, moderately successful marriage and that we consequently have unrealistic expectations when we sign up to such an institution. Through his two protagonists, he seeks to show that a married couple aren’t soldered into a single being through the saying of their vows. On the contrary, they remain individuals with the same needs, flaws and irritating habits that characterised them when they were single. And De Botton argues that true courage lies in the way that people learn not to expect miracles and to set out together, robustly and honestly, to build their own path through the mire.
The fiction is interleaved with paragraphs in which De Botton discusses the assumptions that we make about love, and the ways in which our childhoods, fears and personalities might have an impact on the great love story that we feel obliged to write for ourselves. It is, I suppose, part novel, part popular philosophy book and part lifestyle guide. He encourages us to have compassion not only for ourselves but also for our partner, and to try to meet irritations with understanding. And he obviously knows whereof he speaks, because (I checked Wikipedia) he’s married with two children. The mark of a successful marriage, I’m beginning to realise, is not living in some rose-scented world of perfection, but in being stubborn enough to just make the damn thing work. (This makes me realise how excellent an example my own parents’ forty-year marriage offers.)
Some of you out there might be thinking that actually this is all pretty obvious. I imagine you might be the ones who are already married. And yes, you have a point, but do we really see that many accurate reflections of love in modern culture? It’s heartening to read something so down-to-earth and kind, something which gently undermines what young women, especially, are told at every turn: that somewhere there’s ‘the one’. De Botton points out that, actually, there probably isn’t. Everyone, at the end of the day, is equally irritating and probably a tiny bit mad. It isn’t so much who you marry that makes it a success, but how the two of you face the challenges that lie ahead.
If I ever take the plunge to get married, I can imagine it might be useful to reread this book, just to remind myself that wanting to throttle my husband now and then is perfectly normal. Rather than a sign of weakness or cruelty or failure, it might actually mean that everything is going exactly as it should – just as long as the urge isn’t put into practice. If reading this book gives us just an ounce more self-awareness or generosity towards our partner, our spouse, our close friends or ourselves, then it will have done some good. And it’s certainly reassured me that one can be uncertain, flawed, vulnerable, frightened and stubborn and still make a good hash of it. To conclude, I’d like to share De Botton’s suggestion for a new definition of marriage:
Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.
Thoughts, married readers?!
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review