First published in 1993 (Picador) Alain de Botton's Essays in Love is lovely but also bitter sweet. It's written as a fictional narrative that details a love affair from sweetest beginnings to heartbreaking end, and because it's written in the first person it's hard not to imagine that you're reading an autobiographical account. Whether autobiographical or not there's no way that de Botton could have written so insightfully without experiencing every moment himself. It's beautifully written and I found myself reading and re-reading sections because they perfectly express - and bring into clarity - torments that I've experienced but only dimly understood.

For instance the chapter called 'speaking love', which exquisitely recounts the agonising problem of figuring out when and how to say I love you. I agree with de Botton's view that those three words have become so overloaded with cultural baggage - made at the same time vastly important yet also utterly devalued by tabloid-celebrity-consumer culture - that saying them can easily seem both profoundly unoriginal and fall so far short of expressing how you really feel as to actually amount to a real-terms depreciation of the very thing you're trying to express.

This book is about love, not sex, so anyone expecting a kind of philosophical Joy of Sex will be disappointed. De Botton quite properly reflects the importance of the physical, but the focus here is on all of the other kinds of intercourse that really are - in de Botton's view - the main course of love. This is not a recipe book for dessert. Instead de Botton beautifully recounts and gently deconstructs the ebb and flow of the narrative of love. But if words are the means by which we fall in love then so can they also presage the end of love. One insight that struck a chord was the observation by Chloe, de Botton's (presumably fictional) lover, that "one can talk problems into existence".

Alain de Botton is a philosopher, and this book weaves philosophical insights into its narrative. But this is philosophy at its most practical and accessible. The genius of de Botton, in my view, is that he - perhaps uniquely in our generation - is able to write philosophy that helps directly with the vexed problems of living life in our complex postmodern secular society. Normally the currency of poets and playwrights, few philosophers have taken on love. Shopenhauer was perhaps the best known 19C philosopher to address love and relationships, but pathologically pessimistic and misogynistic his insights offer cold comfort. In stark contrast de Botton is sensitive, positive and life affirming.

Like most complex human conditions love is not something that can be understood with a rational reductionist approach (unless perhaps you happen to be an evolutionary psychologist). But any purely rational approach, while of course doomed to succeed within its own narrow scope, will fail to satisfy. De Botton understands this well. One of the 'lessons in love', the last chapter in this book, offers the paradoxical insight that we must be prepared to both understand the lessons from previous love affairs but then abandon those (ultimately flawed) analyses in order to allow ourselves to fall joyously into love.

To anyone who has been in love, or wants to be in love, and seeks a deeper understanding of that condition I can quite unreservedly recommend this book.

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