BOOK REVIEW / An amorous pas de trois: 'The Romantic Movement' - Alain De Botton: Macmillan, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ALICE meets Eric and goes out with him; then Alice meets Philip and breaks up with Eric. So much for the plot of Alain de Botton's second novel, The Romantic Movement, which follows every step of Alice's amorous pas de trois with excruciating attention. To dress up these bare bones of a story, De Botton has chosen the fashionable drapery of an essay - hence the non-fictional-sounding title.

Each aspect of Alice's courtship - the early hesitancy, the reasons for mutual attraction, the several value systems of people in love, the lovers' defects and qualities - is given a chapterful of comments in which the different aspects of Alice's attachment to Eric and then to Philip are compared to the laws of art, philosophy, gastronomy, politics, and so on; and decorated with quotations that range from D H Lawrence to Wittgenstein. As if this were not enough, De Botton has chosen to illustrate the lot with simple graphics, such as the lovers' spiritual contradictions imagined as a railway track, or their value systems as a floor plan.

Of course, a meagre plot has seldom prevented a good writer from serving up a great novel. Since the days of Daniel Defoe, novelists have often attempted to pass off their plots as something else, perhaps in the hope of tricking the reader into reading their fiction for the clever facts, or their facts for the entertaining fiction. This has led writers to imagine novels that pretend to be true-life confessions, diaries, revelatory letters, dictionaries, menus and catalogues and now, in The Romantic Movement, a manual of pop psychology on the art of love.

There are, no doubt, novelists for whom such a subject and such a device would be a chance for illuminating ruminations or at least for witty repartee. De Botton is not among these happy few. On the contrary, he has a gift for triteness teetering on genius. A few examples will serve to give an idea of what The Romantic Movement holds in store: 'It isn't easy to realize someone can be nice to their secretary but beastly with their spouse.' 'Travel may more interestingly be read as a psychological rather than a geographic effort.' 'What is peculiar to religious love is its emphasis on worship.'

Neither is The Romantic Movement redeemed by the charm of its characters. De Botton's people are vapid to the point of inexistence, and speak in the literary equivalent of cinema verite dialogue, faithful to every hum and haw:

' 'And then apparently they're organizing a huge Christmas party on the beach, with dancing and people are going to dress up and stuff.'

'Oh.'

'Isn't that great?'

'Yeah, sure.'

'Mmmm, this drink is fantastic, this has got to be the best pina colada I've ever had. Do you like yours?'

'Yeah, it's good. Bit sweet though.'

'Is it? Really? No, it isn't'

'It is a bit for me.'

'I don't think it's sweet at all, it's just right.' '

Incautious readers coming upon The Romantic Movement and its subtitle, Sex, Shopping and the Novel, may believe that they are about to embark in either a witty love story or a tongue-in-cheek essay. Instead, they will find that De Botton has written a book-length agony column.

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