Political columnist and master wordsmith, Brooks turns his pen to social interaction

Brooks wraps his argument around the narrative of two characters, Harold and Erica. The reader follows Harold from his parents’ first date to his death. The idea, writes Brooks, is to tell “the happiest story you’ve ever read.” 

An ambitious task for any author, even one as skilled as Brooks, but the centrist conservative columnist falls short in The Social Animal.

Exactly how this would be the happiest story ever told is unclear. The lives of Harold and Erica aren’t especially joyous; if anything, they’re a rather depressing tale, one of people born into privilege, getting married, going through high-paying careers (at one point Erica works at a consulting firm and Harold works at a think tank), overcoming an extramarital affair and, eventually, retiring in Aspen to run a tour company. 

Brooks uses the story of the life of Harold and Erica to deliver his argument, based on recent sociological research, on what causes people to do the things they do. Each chapter has a theme, such as “Decision Making” or “Self-Control.” The problem with this setup, though, is that for it to work, both the research and the story have to be compelling to the reader. 

In that, Brooks is only half-successful. Some of the research is undeniably fascinating, but the story of Harold and Erica almost never is — and when the research isn’t that interesting, it’s hard to finish a page and move on to the next. For example, for every interesting study Brooks cites about what makes a first date successful, there is Brooks describing a surprisingly dull study on how people learn.

What pleasure can be gained from reading The Social Animal lies in the prose. 

Brooks, a master wordsmith even among his adept colleagues on The New York Times op-ed page, applies his writing wit and wisdom to The Social Animal in full force. 

But there, too, the result is less than satisfactory. Every once in a while Brooks offers a contrarian’s sentence probably intended as harmless but which comes off as aggravating. He starts one chapter arguing how well-rounded, pretty, popular kids “are the subject of relentless abuse” — which isn’t to say that’s untrue — but the way Brooks delivers it makes it sound like those kids, Harold included, have it the worst of anybody. 

By the end of The Social Animal the reader isn’t left happier or more fulfilled, but wonders: Why isn’t David Brooks writing about politics?