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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : A Witty But Tedious Tale of the Rise and Fall of a Modern Love Affair : THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT: Sex, Shopping and the Novel, by Alain de Botton , Picador,$23, 326 pages

June 08, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Alain de Botton is not so much the author of this whimsically pedagogic romance as its chaperon; a chaperon who does all the talking and hardly lets the couple get a word in edgewise. Reversing Aesop's, his fable is a limp few lines while his moral prances on and on.

"The Romantic Movement" is the cautionary tale of Alice and Eric, a young London pair whose coupling is sparked by the eternal difference between women and men ( vive it!) and whose decoupling a year or so later is brought about ( helas !) by temporal wear and tear on this same difference.

Alice, who works in advertising, and Eric, an international banker, meet cute at a big formal party where both turn up early at the same empty table. He switches place cards--he wouldn't dream of sitting between a Jennifer and a Melanie, he explains--so as to get beside Alice. She wonders briefly about a still-to-arrive Robert and Jeff but lets herself be wooed and won by this witty, attentive and thoughtful gallant.

Months go by. Alice, a romantic, self-doubting type, had been fascinated by the idea of a great love and has unquestionably found it. Eric, perfectly nice but fascinated by himself, does nevertheless love her unquestionably. They share meals, walks, movies, excursions, beds--alternately at his place or hers--but keep their clothes in their own closets. They are a thoroughly modern couple.

Modern love, like modern plumbing, has not really advanced very far. Look at the flush toilet. Look at Alice and Eric. He wants to read the paper; she wants to kiss his brow. He wants to be; she wants to communicate. On a Barbados vacation he wants to establish that a good time is being had by all--after fussing about the plug for his modem--while she wants to compare and discriminate the good time.

Alice wants to know where the relationship is going; Eric considers that it has arrived. She wants emotional peaks and valleys; he likes flat country and getting his suitcase arranged for his next business trip. Eventually she leaves for a different nice man, a veritable Alps of the emotions. Her flatlander is astonished and hurt.

*

So much for the extraordinarily ordinary story, summarized in a pale suggestion of Botton's facetious and flamboyantly Olympian style. He passes overhead, releasing clusters of epigrams over his subjects. He is knowing--so young, too--and bent on demonstrating it. Alice, the center of his cool concern, can barely make a move or think a thought without Botton launching into a digression linking move and thought to the ins and outs of the ego and the way we live now.

These digressions, buoyantly intended, are seeded with references to Shakespeare, Nietzsche, St. Augustine, Pascal, Rousseau, Chamfort, Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein; the point seems to be to tug these figures into dancing. The figures tug back harder, though, and there goes buoyancy.

The author has worked up an elaborate neo-Euclidean geometry to explain characters that are plain squares and triangles. He does some rather beguiling line drawings to illustrate emotional flow-patterns; mainly suggesting how two figures can move in one enclosed space and perpetually miss each other. More than most of the writing, the drawings manage to carry out what is undoubtedly his intention: to mock his own authorial pomposity. Too often, the mockery is indistinguishable from the mocked.

Botton is a wit, and he has some good lines. Alice's confusions--until she rallies herself at the end--can be caught up elegantly. There is a well-phrased if unoriginal distinction between loving, and loving the idea of love.

"Rather than simply holding that X was wonderful, the in-love-with-love lover would first think, Isn't it wonderful to have found someone as wonderful as X?" When the lover who will displace Eric--unknown to him--fails to turn up at a party, Alice insists that what she minds is not the absence but the informality. And "the hurt passed off as a respectably administrative, rather than shamefully emotional gripe."

Frequently though, Botton is less witty than taken with wittiness. In that condition, a cliche will parade as an epigram. We are told, for example, that what advertisements try to sell is not a product but the illusion of changing one's life.

Wit is allowed its misfires. What makes "The Romantic Movement" so tedious is not so much its absurdly overdressed style as the meagerness of the figures it dresses. Much of the time, Alice and Eric could as well be the generic A and E of a case study. They lack the presumable historical truth of a case study, and the texture of a successful fictional character. It is almost as if Botton had created intellectual and social inferiors in order to patronize them.

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