It will take Rabih many years and frequent essays in love … to recognise that the very things he once considered romantic … are what stand in the way of learning how to sustain relationships. He will conclude that love can endure only when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions; that for his relationships to work he will need to give up on the feelings that got him into them in the first place. (p6)
In a nutshell, The Course of Love is about the need to adjust our ideas of marriage in order to make it a success. In a similar vein, let me suggest the reader adjust her expectations of this book in order to fully appreciate its wisdom and compassion.
Firstly, ignore how it’s branded on the cover and read this book as creative non-fiction, with a beautifully-realised hypothetical couple – let’s call them Kirsten and Rabih – brought in to illustrate how our flawed humanity can make or break the very thing we treasure. That way, you’re less likely to groan that it’s impossible to imagine these characters ever surprising their creator, but to admire instead how well these exemplars of clashing personality types have been brought to life, much in the way that the fictionalised case examples in The Examined Life read like short stories. Reading that way, you’ll be less irritated by the author’s intrusions in italicised homilies drawing universal lessons from the particulars of our couple’s mutual misunderstandings – although you might still decide to skip over them, given that you’re likely to have got the message already.
Secondly, you might omit the first section on Romanticism and the author’s implied confession that he hasn’t read much more than Cinderella or Mills and Boon, or perhaps Jane Eyre, since he’s of the opinion that novels tend to conclude at the wedding ceremony, rather than what comes after. Even for a romance-averse reader like me, this section is insufficiently romantic and it’s clear this isn’t where the author’s interests and skills lie. If you start at page 47, you’ll soon be smiling at the magnitude of the arguments and sulks sparked by “silly things” like disagreeing “about something as petty as which glasses they should buy (when life is so brief and its imperative so huge)” (p50). If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship but don’t recognise yourself in this section, you might need to jump ahead to the chapter in which the couple go for therapy, as you probably need it (although, I’d say, don’t we, especially writers, all).
I didn’t know that The Course of Love would furnish my twenty-fourth fictional therapist, in the shape of tiny Mrs Fairbairn who, despite taking notes while her clients are baring their souls, proves a tenacious “champion of a truth that … is woefully prone to get lost in the surrounding noise: that love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm ”(p198). Not only that, she’s a student of attachment theory, writing a book, Secure and Anxious Attachment in Marital Relationships: An Object Relations View, that is the key to the entire novel, excerpts from which, in no-nonsense sans serif, replace the italicised insertions in this chapter. As the informed reader may already have gathered, like all of us, Rabih and Kirsten have brought their unprocessed hurts from childhood into this most adult of relationships. From here, Rabih finds the maturity to renounce the pursuit of perfection and accept good enough.
Like Thomas and Mary, The Course of Love dissects modern marriage primarily from the male point of view, but I felt we were shown enough of Kirsten’s experience for it not to come across as overly one-sided. Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for my review copy.
I was excited to find connections with my own writing in this book. Some of my short fiction about couples (which you can find by scrolling down my virtual annethologies page) explores marital tensions, especially "Four Hail Marys", "In Search of Mr Right", "Silver Bangles", "Stealing the Show from Nature" and "The Japanese Garden". My forthcoming second novel, Underneath, is also about attachment within a troubled relationship, and the theme also arises in my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, as explored in this post. There’s also a connection with The Course of Love in drawing on romance as the structure for a story about hidden vulnerabilities (although the self-harm Kirsten mentions, “scratching her arms until they bled, she says, gave her the only relief she could find” (p41) isn’t really developed).