Books contemporary fiction literature Philosophy Romance

The truth about what makes a person beautiful in Alain de Botton’s “On Love”

There are a lot of books about love. Some show us what we think love is supposed to look like, others teach us about both love and loss. Some remind us of why love is worth fighting for whilst others demonstrate the hardships of marriage. First love, unrequited love, platonic love, true love, parental love, once-in-a-lifetime love. It’s all there, in thousands and thousands of pages in every book in every library in every country around the world.

What’s harder to find, however, are more objective approaches to love. With every story we become involved. We fall in and out of love alongside our protagonists. Alain de Botton’s On Love is different. We see how the writer falls in love with Chloe, although we don’t fall in love with her ourselves. In the most relatable way, de Botton takes us through the stages of love in his witty, sophisticated and wise book that started his literary career.

“The longing for a destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life” we are told at the outset of Alain de Botton’s On Love, a hip, charming, and devastatingly witty rumination on the thrills and pitfalls of romantic love.

The narrator is smitten by Chloe on a Paris-London flight, and by the time they’ve reached the luggage carousel, he knows he is in love. He loves her chestnut hair and pale nape and watery green eyes, the way she drives a car and eats Chinese food, the gap that makes her teeth Kantian and not Platonic, her views on Heidegger’s Being and Time – although he hates her taste in shoes.

On Love plots the course of their affair from the initial delirium of infatuation to the depths of suicidal despair, through the (Groucho) “Marxist” stage of coming to terms with being loved by the unattainable beloved, through a fit of anhedonia, defined in medical texts as a disease resulting from the terror brought on by the threat of utter happiness, and finally through the nausea induced and terrorist tactics employed when the beloved begins, inexplicably, to drift away.

Filled with profound observations and useful diagrams, On Love displays and examines for all of us the pain and exhilaration of love, asking, “Can we not be forgiven if we believe ourselves fated to stumble one day upon the man or woman of our dreams? Can we not be excused a certain superstitious faith in a creature who will prove the solution to our relentless yearnings?”


There are so many parts of this book that I could go into. Each chapter has its own message and learning curve that would be beneficial to anyone. My advice would be that if you only read one book this year, make it this one.

I’ll cut to the chase here with this one, otherwise I could be here all day talking about the messages in this book. What I loved about On Love was the authors message on the idea of beauty and what makes someone beautiful. It isn’t having the perfect face, or perfect body. It’s out imperfections, our quirks, the things we don’t like that make us beautiful. Even if we don’t think we’re pretty at all, to someone else we could be the most beautiful person in the world, because they see us for who we really are.

Or, as de Botton says, “classically beautiful women should be left to men without imagination”.

He writes:

“Chloe believe that beauty could be measured according to an objective standard, one she had simply failed to reach…

Whatever mathematical errors there were in her face, Chloe found the rest of her body even more unbalanced… she would invariably declare something that something was ‘lopsided’ – though quite what I never discovered. The sculptor Leon Battista Alberti (1409-72) might have known better, for he believed that any beautiful body had fixed proportions, which he spelt out mathematically  after dividing the body of a beautiful Italia girl into six hundred units, then working out the distances from section to section. Summing up is results in his book On Sculpture, Alberti defined beauty as ‘a Harmony of all the Parts, in whatsoever Subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for the worse.’ According to Chloe, however, almost anything about her body could have been added, diminished, or altered without spoiling anything that nature had not already devastated.

However, clearly Plato and Leon Battista Alberti had neglected something in their aesthetic theories, for I found Chloe excessively beautiful…

I took pride in finding Chloe more beautiful than a Platonist would have. The most interesting faces generally oscillate between charm and crookedness. There is a tyranny about perfection, a certain tedium even, something that asserts itself with all the dogmatism of a scientific formula. The more tempting kind of beauty has only a few angles from which it may be glimpsed, and then not in all lights and at all times. It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules of proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those details that also lend themselves to ugliness. As Proust once said, classically beautiful women should be left to men without imagination…

The editor of Vogue might have had difficulty including photos of Chloe in an issue, but this was only a confirmation of the uniqueness that I managed to find in my girlfriend. I had animated her face with her soul.”

Sometimes we only think and see the worst in ourselves, and those who see us – really see us – can wish that sometimes we saw ourselves the way that they do.

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