BOOK REVIEW / Lessons in love: part II: 'The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel' - Alain de Botton: Macmillan, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IF this feels like an insubstantial novel, it is, but in a good way: 326 pages of airy writing slide down in a few hours, eased by amusing or clever illustrations, leaving your literary appetite undiminished. It's just what you'd expect from a young writer who is hailed as stylish and witty all over the back cover.

The plot is a wry circle. Alice is a dreamy young advertising executive, single and depressed; she meets Eric, an older and (she thinks) wiser

banker, and falls in love; Eric turns out be a smug 'emotional prude'; Alice slowly realises this, and falls out of love; she dumps him and then, relieved to be single again, meets another man just as the book ends. De Botton perfectly captures the limits of Alice and Eric's very middle-class relationship: 'When they went out for dinner, the conversation rarely strayed from topics covered in quality daily newspapers.'

For a while they're sustained by Alice's strenuous idealisation of Eric. 'Far from understanding Eric's silences as a sign of how boring he was, Alice saw them as evidence of marked profundity.' Then things start to degenerate, and the comedy becomes more mischevious. Eric wrecks a Caribbean holiday by leaving Alice in their hotel room while he waits for faxes from work; Alice tires of Eric's ability to talk about marriage in terms of GDP. The break-up finally comes in his flat one Saturday morning, when 'the smell of coffee and death was in the air'.

The book seeks smiles of recognition, and deftly gets them. However, like de Botton's first novel, Essays in Love, it also has a grander purpose, and here it's less convincing. He frames the issues digestibly enough, alternating and linking up short thoughtful philosophical passages - on the deceptions, balances of power and miscommunications in any relationship - with the sudden rise and slow fade of Alice's passion. But he threads this unpretentious weave with great garish strands of intellectual reference: 'Leafing through yet another biography of poor Flaubert, one finds . . .' begins one sentence, and many others share its awkward ostentation.

In this context, de Botton's assured statements about 'the last 400 years of philosophy, politics and art' begin to seem glib rather than daring. And when he makes some elegant point about Life and Love, his claim to wisdom begins to beg the question: how does he know? (He's only 24.) The novel's airless setting in expensive parts of West London doesn't help; nor does the caricature of a visit made by Alice to her self-righteous social worker sister in 'an estate in a run-down part of the inner city'. The 'we' that de Botton often uses doesn't include the latter sort of people; instead, it represents those with a comfortable 'absence of moral dilemmas' about anything more serious than their 'literary allegiances'.

However, The Romantic Movement's narrow focus doesn't ruin it as a novel. Its didactic sections are well-written, and short enough to race through, and Alice emerges as a beguilingly flawed creation, stumbling towards wisdom by agonising about Eric and reading self-awareness books. What's more, de Botton does throw into his gently rolling sentences the odd sharper element - to pop your ballooning prejudices against his worldview - remarking on 'the customary polite hypocrisy of the adult relationship' just before Alice's happy discovery of a new partner. Despite her uncertainty, and her author's over- certainty, the book is witty and stylish.