Book review: The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Social Animal by David Brooks Short Books, 430pp, £14.99

"This is the happiest story you've ever read," David Brooks tells us. "It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives." Actually, I didn't think it was a happy story. It's about two fictional characters, Harold and Erica, who meet, get married, and become successful. But this isn't a novel. It's a work of popular science. Brooks has created these characters in order to get inside their heads and explain the science behind everything they do. It's very good. It just doesn't strike me as particularly happy.

We meet Harold as a baby. His parents are affluent and clever. We watch as they fall in love; we watch as his mum, Julia, transforms from party girl to young mother; we watch as Harold's dad, Rob, makes baby Harold laugh by bouncing a tennis ball on a table. Meanwhile, Brooks gives us scientific details about these events. For instance, babies listen to their mothers' voices in the womb, and laughter is a way for people to bond, and probably existed before human beings started to speak.

We watch as Harold's brain develops (he has 100 million brain cells), as he learns to think, as he becomes a charming, intelligent boy, as he goes to school. Brooks gives us all sorts of scientific stuff about what makes a good education, and why middle-class kids do well. Harold has a great English teacher, a woman he has a crush on, and she gets him interested in ancient Greece. He goes to university. He enters the "odyssey" phase of life. Brooks explains that lots of young people spend their twenties hanging out and trying on different identities. Then he meets Erica. By this time, we've already met her; she's an ambitious Mexican-Chinese girl from a broken home. She bobs between two extended families, one Mexican, one Chinese. Her mum keeps moving, occasionally to a decent apartment. But she often ends up in a dingy housing project. Brooks explains how, and why, it's much easier for middle-class kids to do well at school and college; they grow up confident and articulate, having spent years in conversation with their confident, articulate parents. Their grammar is good because their parents have spent years correcting it. Meanwhile, the parents of poor children are often stressed.

Anyway, Erica goes to school. She works hard. She becomes a ferocious, tantrum-throwing tennis player. Then she goes to college, becomes a workaholic, and decides to start a consumer research company. She hires Harold as an assistant. They become friends and go mountain-biking together. Then they fall in love and get married. Brooks is always there, getting inside their heads and explaining how their brains work. It's like freeze-framing a novel and discussing the motivation of the characters. It's fascinating.

But happy? I'm not so sure.I kept feeling sorry for Harold and Erica. Sure, they become more and more successful - she ends up working at the White House, and he becomes a historian. But Erica is a damaged, driven workaholic. She's the sort of person who makes lists of things she wants to do for fun. All she really wants to do is work. When Harold asks her if she wants children, she is so negative that he's frightened to ask her again. So they don't have any children. We watch as they get old; we watch as Harold dies, sitting on the porch of his vacation house in Aspen. Brooks explains in detail what it feels like to die. It's strangely moving.

This, says Brooks, is a book about the unconscious mind, and how we are largely driven by it. That's true. It's also a story about two people who find success, but don't have a family. I kind of wish they had.

Also, if you'd like to read a shelf of books by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson, Antonio Damasio, Paul Bloom, Daniel Goleman, Louann Brizendine and David Buss, but don't have time, you could do a lot worse than read this. Brooks has really pushed the boat out here, and it's a great success.