I’ve read, and greatly enjoyed, Status Anxiety and The Romantic Movement by de Botton and I honestly didn’t think this book was up to the standard of the others.
He starts out with a good idea: to write the biography of a random person and, while doing so, to challenge the idea of what biography is all about.
Sounds fine and, after having just read Stalin’s biography, it was good to consider some of thoughts against that book. de Botton raises some of the issues that the biographer faces and the risks of a wrong focus for both the writer and reader of the genre. Interesting to consider briefly, but hardly life-shattering issues or ones which anyone with half a mind of their own and an understanding of subjectivity isn’t going to be aware of to some extent anyway. I’d have thought that anyone who manages to pull off a reasonably reviewed biography is going to have a better take on it that de Botton himself in fact.
I felt the book was much too contrived. I couldn’t grasp how someone like the Isabel he describes would agree to actually baring themselves for this biography. I have no idea why the book is stuffed full of colour pics of her family and friends except possibly to justify the exorbitant prices that publishers slam on books these days. It’s also confusing subtitled “A Novel” but that then makes the photos all the more confusing – are these real people or not? Is Isabel just someone he made up and is that the little twist in the tale all along? Boringly interesting to consider I suppose.
So, it was a disappointing read for me and there wasn’t as much of the usual de Botton classic insight into everyday life that I’ve come to expect from him. In fact, some of it seemed mundane in the extreme such as his comment that people who are married longer don’t talk to each other as much because they no longer have anything new to find out about each other. That sounds like the stereotypical view of a young single person and, guess what he was when he wrote the book: young and single. I’ve been married 13 years and, apart from the fact that there’s loads about my wife’s background I’m still discovering after that time, she’s changed enough since we’ve been married that there’s always more I can find out about her now.
In the end, the only real insight I got out of the book was a desire to try the experiment for myself with my wife as subject simply for the sake of getting to know her better. Writing her biography would be a lovely life-long challenge.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb