Day 1114: Literary Wives! On Beauty

Cover for On BeautyToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Howard’s End, so I didn’t catch that the opening of On Beauty indicates an homage to that novel. But it becomes more apparent toward the middle of the book. That is when Mrs. Kipps leaves Kiki Belsey a valuable painting, an informal bequest that the Kipps family chooses not to honor.

On Beauty is set in the fictional college town of Wellington, Massachusetts, where Howard Belsey is a professor of art history. Belsey is an expert in Rembrandt who dislikes Rembrandt and practically everything else. Smith does quite a bit of skewering of academia in this novel, particularly with Howard and his archenemy, Monty Kipps. Kipps is a political academic, a conservative who is giving a series of lectures entitled “Taking the Liberal out of Liberal Arts.” Howard despises everything he stands for.

Howard, one of the few white major characters in this novel, is an Englishman married to Kiki, an African-American hospital administrator. She has recently discovered that Howard was unfaithful, but she doesn’t know the whole story. The two are struggling to keep their marriage together.

Despite Howard’s difficulties with Monty Kipps, when Kipps moves his family from England to be a visiting lecturer at Howard’s college, Kiki invites them to their anniversary party. Going to the Kipps’s house to deliver the invitation, Kiki meets Mrs. Kipps and immediately feels a rapport.

The situation with the Kipps has not been helped because Jeremy Belsey, the oldest Belsey child, fell in love with Victoria Kipps when he was Monty’s summer intern and announced to his family that they were engaged. Although Kiki tried to keep Howard from panicking, he immediately ran off to London to stop it and managed to offend everyone. The engagement, of course, was already off when he arrived.

Identity is an important theme in the novel, class identity, as with Howard’s End, political, racial, and sexual. Zora Belsey, a student at the college, is a forceful young woman who is so worried about her college resume that she blackmails her way into a class using her knowledge of Howard’s affair. Yet she suffers from body hatred and later confuses a social cause with a personal crush.

Sixteen-year-old Levi fakes a Brooklyn accent and is ashamed of his middle-class background. He wants to be a bro from the hood and later takes up the cause of some Haitian refugees.

Smith’s skewering of academia is dead on, particularly in a scene where a student goes to Howard’s class determined to express her solid-sounding opinions about the painting they were assigned to study, only to be bowled over by the incomprehensible deconstructionist jargon employed by Howard and two of his pets. Smith’s American narrative voices aren’t quite as strong. Although the narrative seems to be omniscient, she actually moves among the points of view of one character after another.  From the points of view of the American characters, Kiki, or say, Zora, who has spent most of her life in the States, she occasionally uses the wrong words. No American has called a bathing suit a bathing costume since the early 19th century, for example. It’s a styrofoam cup, not a polystyrene cup, as more accurate chemically as that term may be, and she uses a term for a P. A. system that I never heard before. Still, this is a minor quibble.

More importantly, I didn’t like any of the characters except maybe Kiki, although she was busy crying much of the time. Still, I think they were realistically portrayed. This novel just didn’t do that much for me. Smith has a kind of gritty sensibility that I’m not fond of.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Although two marriages are touched on in the novel, the one that is central is that of Kiki and Howard. It felt like one of the more realistic portrayals of marriage in the books we have read so far for this club, because everything is not black and white. Kiki is heartbroken at Howard’s infidelity and is about to be more so. Howard loves Kiki but is dismayed and unattracted by her huge weight gain.

Both of them are in a sort of limbo at first. Howard wants to be forgiven, but for Kiki it’s not so easy. So, for a while there is sort of an indeterminate give and take, during which the situation is sometimes better, sometimes worse.

Kiki is a strong woman who wants to be loved for herself. At the same time, we don’t see very much of Kiki except in her interactions with her family and Mrs. Kipps.

Howard, whom we see more of in other situations, is a man who thinks only of himself—particularly of his own eccentric tastes and dislikes. Although he has a good sense of humor, he doesn’t really like anything, he has no passions for anything. And Howard turns out to be on a fairly self-destructive path, while Kiki, although she is unhappy, seems as if she could survive anything.

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10 thoughts on “Day 1114: Literary Wives! On Beauty

  1. TJ @ MyBookStrings August 7, 2017 / 11:00 am

    I agree with you that the portrayal of the Belseys’ marriage was one of the more realistic ones out there. Actually, I thought most characters were realistic, with all of them having their strengths and weaknesses. But as I said in my review, there was just too much going on overall, in my opinion. The references to Howard’s End went completely over my head. I completely missed that aspect. 🙂

    • whatmeread August 7, 2017 / 11:08 am

      I almost did. I noticed the gift, and then I read a review that talked a little about it. I think maybe Smith was trying to tell us too much about too many characters for the novel not to feel disjointed. I have only read one other book by her, NW, and she did the same thing there.

  2. Naomi August 7, 2017 / 11:46 am

    I agree that no one is really likeable, except for Kiki. And maybe Carl, too, but he doesn’t matter a whole lot. And I really found Howard quite miserable. I wondered what Kiki even saw in him, and had to remind myself that she has known him for over 30 years, and I am only seeing him in the present – something Kiki talks about being a challenge for her when trying to decide whether to stay with him – weighing out his recent mistakes with everything they have built together over 30 years of marriage.
    I thought about reading Howard’s End first, because I had heard about the connection, but I didn’t get to it so didn’t clue in on any of the references.

    • whatmeread August 7, 2017 / 11:51 am

      Except for Howard’s sense of humor, which occasionally came out, I had to wonder what could ever have attracted her. He seemed to hate everything! That can’t be fun to live with. The only connection I noticed was the gift and how the family decided not to give it. That’s straight Howard’s End. And of course I had to wonder about the title and the fact that Smith names her character Howard.

      • Naomi August 7, 2017 / 12:28 pm

        Maybe the story could have done with a couple of pre-marriage flashbacks…

      • whatmeread August 7, 2017 / 12:59 pm

        That might have helped.

  3. The Paperback Princess August 8, 2017 / 12:53 pm

    I like how you have broken Zora down, here. Makes me look at that character in a different light.

    This book almost felt like it was trying so hard to be clever that it forgot to include any *feeling*.

  4. whatmeread August 8, 2017 / 1:49 pm

    Maybe. I think it is rather satirical, and maybe I’m not even getting just how satirical it is.

  5. Kate Rae Davis August 9, 2017 / 7:51 pm

    Yes, loved the complexity that Smith has for both her characters and their relationships. Even when a character isn’t necessarily likeable, they’re still relatable — or at *least* understandable — and that feels more important. (At least, I read for the human condition, so it feels more important to me; it’s not everyone’s reading goal.) I loved your phrasing that “not everything is black and white” — especially since the very constructs of black and white make everything, erm, less black and white 😉

  6. whatmeread August 9, 2017 / 9:11 pm

    Good one! I think too many modern depictions of family problems are too cut and dried. Boy, am I mixing metaphors today!

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