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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Day 660: Straight Man

Cover for Straight ManSo far, I have enjoyed Empire Falls the most of Richard Russo’s novels, and Straight Man is at least also set in the rust belt, which he depicts so well. However, rather than being a depiction of small-town life, it is a rich spoof of academia. My husband, formerly the spouse of an academic, tells a joke, probably an old one, that the reason politics in academia is so vicious is that the stakes are so low. That these battles are being fought not on the campus of a great university but of an obscure college in a small Pennsylvania industrial town makes it more ironic.

William Henry Devereux, Jr., (Hank) sees himself as a bit of a rebel, although his rebelliousness mostly confines itself to snarky comments in faculty meetings and satiric opinion pieces on academic life in the local paper. He was once the author of a decently reviewed novel, but now he finds himself the interim head of the English department at a small Pennsylvania college.

Hank has been ignoring rumors that the college is to undergo stringent cuts on the grounds that the same rumors make the rounds every April. The faculty members in his department are constantly embattled, most recently over the job search for a new department head. Hank is better at enraging them than smoothing things over, and at the beginning of the novel suffers a wound to his nose when a professor hits him with her spiral notebook.

Maybe Hank wouldn’t have gotten himself into quite so much trouble, but his wife Lily is out of town on a job interview, and he is preoccupied by a possible kidney stone when he begins taking the rumors seriously. One of the reasons he has discounted them is that the college is breaking ground on an expensive new technology center and he can hardly believe they could claim financial problems requiring layoffs at the same time.

Such is the case, he finds, and with his department members all worried about their jobs, he chooses the groundbreaking ceremony to stage a protest, claiming he will kill a duck (which is in reality a goose) from the campus pond for every day he doesn’t get his budget. Soon he finds himself a minor media celebrity and a suspect of campus security when someone actually does kill a goose. In the meantime, his daughter’s marriage is imploding, he keeps imagining his wife is having an affair with the dean, his scholar father who years before deserted him and his mother for a graduate student is returning, and an attractive daughter of a colleague might be trying to seduce him. The events of this week force him to examine his relationship to his own life.

I found this novel both a bit over the top and amusing, as well as true. If I have a criticism, it is to wonder about some modern male authors’ fascination with bodily functions, and why they seem to think they’re funny. But I guess I can’t constrain this complaint to just novelists, because I’ve been staying away from comic movies for years for the same reason.

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Day 556: Stoner

Cover for StonerBest Book of the Week!
When I first began reading Stoner, I was afraid it was going to be a bleak modernist novel. But it is the opposite of bleak. It is a novel about a shy, awkward man who loves. Williams called it “an escape into reality.”

Williams begins the novel by describing William Stoner’s career at the University of Missouri:

“He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.”

It seems that Williams will be writing about a nonentity, but this is not the case.

On the surface, Stoner does not have a happy life. He is the son of a dirt-poor farmer who decides that William should attend college to learn new agricultural techniques. So, Stoner arrives at the University of Missouri a gawky, unsophisticated boy who has only a mild interest in his courses and begins an undistinguished career.

Then in his sophomore year, he takes a required English literature survey course. Although he is speechless in class, he realizes he has found the thing he loves and so changes his major. He eventually earns a doctorate and begins a teaching career at the university.

He makes an unfortunate choice for a wife, marrying a girl whose training makes her more suitable for a society wife than that of an impoverished instructor. It is not clear why Edith marries him except possibly to get away from home. She makes very clear how distasteful she finds sex, and he is too inexperienced to know what to do about it.

Edith’s sexuality changes briefly when she decides she wants a child. After their daughter Grace is born, though, Edith takes little interest in her or in him. Stoner, on the other hand, falls madly for Grace. He takes on almost all the care for her in her first five or six years of life. Then Edith does everything she can to separate them and mold Grace into the type of girl Edith thinks she should be.

Stoner’s solace is in his work, for which he eventually finds a talent for teaching Medieval literature. His progress in his career is hindered, though, by university politics. He finds himself in a dispute over the fitness of a student to enter the doctoral program. Although Stoner’s position is completely justified and his actions misrepresented, he earns himself the enmity of the student’s mentor, Hollis Lomax, who eventually becomes department chair.

Stoner falls in love and finds for awhile some tenderness, but he knows his relationship will be short-lived. It is also ended by university politics.

What Williams accomplishes in this novel is to turn that first assessment of Stoner on its head. Stoner is a flawed man who owes many of the difficulties of his life to inaction, but he is doing work he loves, he is completely conscientious in his efforts, and he even manages a minor victory over his enemy after years of patience. The introduction to the novel states that although readers think Williams is depicting a sad life, he sees it as a novel about love, all the forms it takes, and the forces against it.

You may think this novel sounds dreary. It is not, and it is not often that you feel as if you know and love a character so thoroughly.


Day 239: Lucky Jim

Cover for Lucky JimI hate to use the word “hapless” two days in a row, but here goes. Hapless Jim Dixon is an unhappily employed lecturer in history at a “new university” in England. (I believe even that phrase is supposed to be fraught with meaning, but I am not British, so I don’t know what it might be.) Uncertain of whether he’ll be keeping his job in the coming year, he is forced to listen with an attentive air to the endless prosings of his boss Professor Welch and to take on all the tedious chores he is assigned. He vents his frustration through silly pranks and grotesque grimaces when he thinks no one is looking.

He has also gotten himself entangled with Margaret, a manipulative coworker whom he pities because she recently attempted suicide when her fiancé left her.

During a stultifying weekend of amateur theatrics and madrigal singing at the Welch’s, Jim meets the beautiful Christine, the girlfriend of the horrible Bertrand, Welch’s pretentious and belligerant son. Jim is startled to find that perhaps Christine returns his interest.

Amis’ amusing skewering of academic life comes to a climax at Jim’s well-attended lecture on Merrie England. Amis’ novel is known both for being the first “campus novel,” one that takes the point of view of a lecturer rather than a student, and for its down-to-earth, witty writing style, an approach that was unusual at the time. Although it was published in 1954, it holds up pretty well in modern times.