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 1105: Fludd

Cover for FluddAll of Hilary Mantel’s writing has some sort of edge, but I’m beginning to feel that I enjoy more her work that isn’t quite as satirical, her historical fiction, for example, as opposed to some of her earlier, blacker works. Fludd was written in 1989 and fits firmly into the latter category.

Mantel’s note states that she depicts a 1950’s-ish Catholic church that never existed, but having read her memoir, I would venture to say that there are seeds of her childhood both in the setting and in her depiction of the church.

Father Angwin is a well-meaning, old-fashioned sort of priest working in an ugly church stuffed with statues of saints in a dismal working-class town called Fetherhoughton. He has long ago lost his faith, but he is struggling along as best he can. The bishop, whom he calls His Corpulence, wants him to make the church more “relevant:” modernize the service and get rid of the saints. He also says he is sending Father Angwin a curate.

Although Father Angwin thinks the people need the saints, he reluctantly buries them in the church yard. Shortly thereafter, a man appears at the door of the presbytery whom everyone assumes is the curate. People find themselves confiding their innermost secrets to him. He never seems to eat, but his food disappears. No one can recall his face when he’s not there.

Sister Philomena is a young Irish nun in the convent. She was evicted from her Irish convent because her mother claimed her skin rash was stigmata, and she went along with it. Her days are tormented by Mother Perpetua, the terror of the convent. She also finds herself confiding in Fludd.

But who is Fludd? Is he the curate, a demon, an angel? In any case, he’s an agent for change.

I don’t think I understand Catholicism, or indeed any religion, well enough to grasp the theological issues or even everything Mantel is poking fun at. I think this novel would be a much more pointed weapon if read by a lapsed Catholic. Mantel claims to have seen a demon, and demons lurk throughout her work. This is a funny but peculiar one.

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Day 1103: A Man Called Ove

Cover for A Man Called OveI avoided reading A Man Called Ove for some time, because I had a feeling about what kind of book it would be. But my curiosity won out. Sadly, I was right the first time.

This is another one of those novels I put under the “heartfelt” category. Not that there is anything wrong with something that is truly heartfelt. But I think there is a rash of novels like this lately that manipulate us into sentiment.

Ove is a sad man with many tragedies in his life, which he handles by presenting a curmudgeonly exterior. Most recently, he has been given early retirement six months after his beloved wife Sonja died. He decides his life has no purpose.

The plot of this novel is predictable, as Ove gets pulled out of his self-absorption by the troubles of various neighbors and acquaintances. All of these characters are stick figures, and Ove himself only has two sides to his character. In fact, he is really just a caricature of a grumpy old man, as I can’t imagine there is actually anyone on earth this extreme.

The novel is supposed to be funny, but the humor is forced and cumbersome. And we’re supposed to find it funny that Ove’s repeated attempts at suicide are always interrupted by his neighbors. Ha ha. As you can tell, this one was not for me.

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Day 1095: Number9Dream

Cover for Number9DreamI usually enjoy, on one level or another, everything David Mitchell writes, and I consider a couple of his novels to be really excellent. I wasn’t as fond of Number9Dream, however.

Eiji Miyake has traveled from his home on a southern island of Japan to Tokyo to find his father. He and his twin sister were the product of an illicit relationship that their father abruptly broke off, and Eiji and Anju have never known his identity. They were raised by their grandmother with only infrequent visits from their mother.

When Eiji was eleven, his sister drowned. We are supposed to believe that he ran away on that day and lived in the mountains by himself.

The book begins with a series of unlikely daydreams that Eiji has about meeting his father as he sits in a cafe looking at the building where a lawyer representing his father has an office. When he finally meets the lawyer, she refuses to give him any information about his father or even to give his father a message.

Eiji begins a series of attempts to find his father, involving some unlikely and almost surrealistic adventures. He journeys to the city’s underworld, visits brothels, gets involved with the Yakuza, and has other adventures, all while working a series of low-wage jobs.

This novel is Mitchell’s second, and it seems more juvenile than the others. I don’t think I’m giving away too much, considering the quotes on the jacket cover, when I say that it’s difficult to tell at times whether the protagonist is dreaming or not or whether the entire novel is a dream. There are varying opinions about whether using dreams in novels is effective, or whether they simply stall the plot. I am usually bored by them.

Like some of Mitchell’s other novels, this one also involves several voices. One chapter interjects a series of children’s tales in between sections of the main story, and I found these frankly tedious and unlikely to amuse children. In another section, Eiji receives a diary of his uncle’s life during World War II. This manuscript is interesting inasmuch as it tells about a Japanese program to send manned torpedoes against the American fleet, a suicidal mission that proved more costly to the Japanese than it did to their enemies. This section had some appeal but didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the novel.

So, this novel was not to my taste. I felt it was disjointed and occasionally uninteresting. Although it uses techniques that Mitchell employs in other books, it doesn’t use them as skillfully. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, though, so I guess I’m in the minority.

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Day 1092: Commonwealth

Cover for CommonwealthIt’s difficult to explain what Commonwealth is about without either telling too much or failing to make it sound interesting. Yet, it is a very interesting novel about how one afternoon changes the lives of everyone in two families, or at least that’s partially what it’s about.

The novel begins when Albert Cousins, an attorney from the district attorney’s office, crashes a christening for Fix and Beverly Keating’s youngest daughter. Fix only vaguely knows Bert Cousins from his work as a police officer. Bert has crashed the party in an effort to get away from his own household with his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa, as he does every weekend.

But once Bert sets eyes on Beverly Keating, he decides she is his future. One kiss in the upstairs bedroom with a sleeping child begins an affair that results in divorce for both families.

The novel concentrates on the effects of this divorce on both sets of children. Although Carolyn and Franny Keating beg year after year to stay in California with their dad, they are uprooted to Virginia to live with their mother when she and Bert move back to his home state. Bert demonstrates again and again that he doesn’t care to be around his own children, but he wins custody of them for the whole of each summer, while Teresa gets a job and keeps it together the rest of the year by the skin of her teeth. The result is that the kids grow up with virtually no supervision, especially in the summer, when Bert leaves everything to Beverly, who can’t cope.

This novel reminded me in some ways of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, although it spans only about 45 or 50 years. However, it felt that the characters in this novel are much more knowable. I always enjoy Patchett’s writing, and her novels are all different from each other. I enjoyed this one very much.

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Day 1083: Everybody’s Fool

Cover for Everybody's FoolBest Book of the Week!
I don’t think I am the only one to be delighted when I learned that Richard Russo was returning to the familiar ground of North Bath, New York, and Sully, of Nobody’s Fool. Sully has been diagnosed with a heart condition and has less than two years to live unless he undergoes a procedure he’s been avoiding. This situation leads him to consider a little more deeply some fundamental questions.

Sully’s friend Rab has felt a change in their relationship since Sully came into money. They no longer work together, and Rab feels that Sully neglects him. Rab is ridiculously dependent on him.

Sully is concerned for Ruth, his long-time lover, and her daughter, Janey. Janey’s abusive ex-husband is back in town, fresh out of jail.

A major character of the novel is Douglas Raymer. Once the rookie who waved his gun at Sully for driving on the sidewalk, Raymer is now the chief of police.  He has always been obsessively self-conscious and unsure of himself. His self-esteem has not been improved by finding out on the day of his beloved wife Becka’s death that she was leaving him for someone else. The problem is, he doesn’t know who, but he has found the remote for someone else’s garage door under the seat of Becka’s car.

Raymer is already considering quitting his job when he begins one of the worst days of his life. While attending the funeral of a judge, he passes out from the heat and falls into the grave. Later he realizes that he must have dropped the remote, which he planned to use to find Becka’s lover, in the grave.

Russo is great at creating flawed but lovable and believable characters, and he specializes in settings of beaten-down working class towns in the rust belt. He also doesn’t flinch from pushing his characters to the heights of absurdity, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style. Sometimes he goes too far with this, but other times it works perfectly to produce a serio-comic effect. This is one of those times. Empire Falls remains my favorite Russo novel, but this one is right up there.

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Day 1081: Days of Awe

Cover for Days of AweIsabel is struggling. It is almost a year since the death of her beloved friend, Josie. Her husband, Chris, has moved out, and her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, blames her for it. She has become alienated from her childhood friend, Mark, who was Josie’s husband, because of his romantic choice.

This novel is a character study more than anything else, of Josie and of Isabel, as Isabel revisits memories and tries to deal with the sadness in her life. As Isabel grows to understand that she was missing cues from Josie, she slowly learns to handle Josie’s death.

I enjoyed this novel. It is well written, with funny dialogue. Both Isabel and Josie express themselves with imagination and humor. We learn to care for Isabel, with all of her foibles.

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