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Essays in Love
3.15.2004 by Julian, every Tuesday.

The title of Alain de Botton’s first novel, Essays In Love, says it all. The book is a rather unremarkable love story in which every aspect of the relationship is analyzed according a wide variety of religious, philosophical, psychological and historical theories of love. For a sampling of the topics de Botton covers in this novel, just read the Table of Contents. It includes such chapter titles include ‘Romantic Fatalism’, ‘Mind and Body’, ‘Marxism’, ‘Scepticism and Faith’, and ‘The Jesus Complex’.

Our protagonist meets a young woman named Chloe on a plane flight from Paris to London, and the story follows them through seduction, to the first kiss, to the development of a serious relationship, to holidays together, to their final break-up (and the story itself really isn’t interesting enough for that to spoil the ending). The protagonist describes the theoretical context of each stage along the way. He draws on Plato, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Jung and numerous others to explain his relationship with Chloe. When he discusses probability he includes diagrams of the seating plan of the Boeing 767 on which he and Chloe met and gives an equation to work out their chances of having been assigned seats next to each other: [p=1/36—>110/17,847 = 1/162(.245)—>1/162.245 x 36 = 1/5840.821]

The Chapter entitled ‘False Notes’ begins like this:
Long before we’ve had the chance to become familiar with our loved one, we may be filled with the curious sense that we know them already. It seems as though we’ve met them somewhere before, in a previous life perhaps, or in our dreams. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes explains this feeling of familiarity with the claim that the loved one was our long lost ‘other half’ whose body we had originally been stuck to. In the beginning, all human beings were hermaphrodites with double backs and flanks, four hand and four legs and two faces turned in opposite directions on the same head. These hermaphrodites were so powerful and their pride so overweening that Zeus was forced to cut them in two, into a male and female half—and from that day, each man and each woman has yearned to rejoin the half from which he or she has been severed.
The next paragraph relates this to our protagonist’s relationship with Chloe: “Chloe and I spent Christmas apart, but when we returned to London in the new year, we began spending every available minute in each other’s company, mostly in each other’s arms, often in each other’s beds…”

De Botton is clever. That much is certain. He’s got a degree from Cambridge where he obviously got a good grounding in history and philosophy. Essays in Love is certainly a clever little book, but it’s not much more than that. The love story itself has to be bland in order for de Botton’s analysis of it to remain generally applicable, so we don’t really care about the characters. The book gives a good light overview of the history of thought on love and how that thought applies to modern day love affairs, but it certainly doesn’t reveal any spectacular insights. If I was going to write my own essay on love for a class this novel would be a good place to get ideas, but as a novel it’s unremarkable.

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