Essays in Love: Reviews
Gabriele Annan in The Spectator, 30 October 1993
On a BA flight from Paris to London the narrator picks up Chloe who happens to be sitting in the next seat. He takes her out to dinner, they go bed together, fall in love and begin a serious affair. After a while Chloe loses interest. On the BA flight back from a weekend in Paris, she confesses that she has slept with the narrator’s American friend Will. The narrator is devastated. Chloe follows Will to California. The narrator botches a suicide attempt (vitamin C instead of sleeping pills) and falls into a long depression from which he emerges three pages from the end while sitting next to Rachel at a dinner party. The following week and in the last paragraph, Rachel accepts his invitation to dine.
That’s the whole plot and it holds one’s attention. The characters live: the narrator, introvert, analytical, fastidious, alarmingly well-read and indefinably old-fashioned; and Chloe, modern, extrovert, relaxed, relentlessly unsentimental. He loves the films of Eric Rohmer, she hates them. The author is very good at getting across what it is that attracts the hero (his alter ego?) to Chloe: her generosity, her self-deprecation, her throw-away charm, expressed through the way she talks. The dialogue is convincing and engaging.
But the plot is not the whole story by any means. The chapters have headings like ‘Romantic Fatalism’, ‘Romantic Terrorism’, ‘Intermittences of the Heart’. The book is a psycho-philosophical treatise on love, the paragraphs numbered and ironically illustrated with diagrams; the first one is a mathematical calculation of the chances of Chloe and the narrator being seated side by side on the plane, the last a graph of her orgasmic contractions. There are quotations from and references to Plato, Kant, John Stuart Mill, Groucho Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Stendhal, Goethe, Freud, Barthes, and finally Dr Peggy Nearly, a Californian psychoanalyst whose do-it-yourself manual, The Bleeding Heart, was published in 1987. Botton invents a consultation between Dr Nearly and Madame Bovary in which the good doctor urges Flaubert’s heroine to choose more suitable lovers and to make an effort to look after yourself, to go over your childhood, then perhaps you’ll learn that you don’t deserve all this pain. It’s only because you grew up in a dysfunctional family.
Emma isn’t interested: she just wants Rudolph back; and for the third week running she hasn’t got the money for Dr Nearly’s fee.
The narrator’s self-analysis throughout the book is a lot more subtle than Dr Nearly’s offerings, and he develops it in to magisterial generalisations. The result is something like La Rochefoucauld’s maxims crossed with Adolphe, with jokes and against a background of luggage reclaim areas and breakfast cereal packets. The narrator writes his suicide note at the kitchen table ‘with only the shivering of the fridge for company’. The desolation of it! Ingeniously pinpointed mundane details stop the novel from getting too abstract. It is witty, funny, sophisticated, neatly tied up, and full of wise and illuminating insights. With so many illustrious names dropped, it is difficult to tell whether the insights are original or not: but they are certainly organised into a very entertaining read. For people who mind about that kind of thing, Essays in Love is also quite unusually optimistic.