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Kiss & Tell Hardcover – June 1, 1996
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Alain de Botton has crafted a delightfully ingenious novel in the form of a biography of an unknown woman. Told by a former flame that he lacks empathy, the engaging narrator of Kiss & Tell decides to write a book about the next person he meets. This turns out to be Isabel Rogers, a production assistant at a London stationery company. The sincere effort of this would-be Boswell to make this ordinary woman fascinating cause him to fall in love with her, causing a shift in his writing from an examination of Isabel's life to a minutely-detailed account of his relationship with her. Alain de Botton's earlier work, The Romantic Movement, garnered praise from John Updike and Pico Iyer, who called him "a Stendhal of the 90's dating scene."
From Publishers Weekly
"Dental work on," "first kiss" and "new hairstyle" can all be found under the index entries for Isabel Rogers, the charming, unsuspecting subject of this diverting fictional biography. De Botton plays a nimble game, through the eyes and idiosyncrasies of his smart, pretentious narrator. Looking for an opportunity to explore the nature of biography without being overshadowed by his subject, the narrator attaches himself to a woman he thinks will be mundane enough to be fully mastered. To play off the appealing if thoroughly normal Isabel, de Botton (The Romantic Movement) makes his narrator as fastidious as any of Nicholson Baker's and as smarmily self-absorbed as one of Martin Amis's. But the ordinary details of Isabel's ordinary life?she is 28, a production assistant in London?prove more than enough to handle, and the narrator, who likes to quote Dr. Johnson and Richard Ellman, finds that the high-brow rigors of formal biography have to make concessions to the unruliness of lived life. Inevitably in this comic relationship, the narrator digresses too often, experimenting with handwriting analysis, palmistry and psychiatric questionnaires before he realizes that he is missing a very different kind of understanding of Isabel. Deftly, de Botton manages to flesh out the character of Isabel within the parameters of what is?in every sense?his narrator's pseudo-intellectual conceit. In the manner of Carol Shield's The Stone Diaries, photos of "Isabel" and her family add a droll touch.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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But under this delicious patina of pettiness, there are a number of more serious subjects. Such as the nature of biography itself. And whether our versions of ourselves are any more reliable than those of an outside observer. The nature of memory. And a comparison of the virtues and liabilities of the fat, detail-obsessed Boswelian biographies versus the "toast-sized", summary-style biographical sketches of an Aubrey. (Anyone who has read--or tried to write--an obituary for a family member will find the chapter "In Search of an Ending" fascinating.) And anyone who is familiar with de Botton's other works will not be surprised how he manages to draw the likes of Marcel Proust, Adam Smith, Frederick Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Hippocrates into the conversation, as well as zany bits of pop psychology like graphology, palmistry, and magazine personality questionnaires. To support the trope that KISS AND TELL is a real biography, de Botton even provides a 12-page, fully functioning index (complete with entries on "toenails" and "sex.") As a work of fiction, KISS AND TELL isn't nearly as interesting as his earlier novel, ON LOVE, but it is an amusing book...and it will make you think about your own quirks and self-delusions.
I was so intrigued by the passage, I actually decided to buy the book after I was done. (How often does that happen?)
Aside from such reflexions - even though treated quite superficially - the book contains lengthy observations of the banal habits of a young lady called Isabel Rogers who lives in London and whose biography will interest very few readers indeed.