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 1060: Literary Wives: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Cover for ZToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I reviewed this novel about a year and a half ago, and I don’t want to repeat my review except as it applies to our subject. Overall, I thought that novel was interesting and painted a devastating picture of the Fitzgerald’s marriage. Here is my original review.

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

Although the Fitzgeralds start out with a loving relationship, their marriage goes sadly awry, mostly because of Scott Fitzgerald’s insecurities. A life full of drunken parties doesn’t help, nor does Fitzgerald’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway.

Fowler depicts Zelda as a creative woman whose work is robbed from her by her support for her husband. His “assistance” to her career of publishing several of her stories under his own name turns out to be a trap, whether planned or not. Afterwards she is unable to publish because her work is perceived to resemble Scott’s too much. When she finally writes a novel, he takes it over in the editing stage and butchers it.

Ernest Hemingway dislikes Zelda and feeds on Fitzgerald’s insecurities to destroy their marriage. Although Fitzgerald was an established author and Hemingway a newcomer when they met, Fitzgerald seems unsure about his own abilities. He starts out by taking Hemingway under his wing, but Hemingway pays him back by telling him that Zelda is ruining his life. At first, Scott dismisses such ideas, but after a while, he begins to believe them.

Being Scott Fitzgerald’s wife starts out fun but turns into a horrible life for Zelda. She struggles to express her own creativity. Aside from undercutting her career opportunities as a writer, when she is offered a lead role in a ballet, he threatens to take her daughter away from her. He returns her support by being a drunk, an unfaithful one, and by trying to control her. She finally ends up in a mental institution when she actually has nothing wrong with her mind.

Moral of the story: don’t marry insecure authors.

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Day 1035: Literary Wives: The Wife

Cover for The WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I’ve only read one other book by Meg Wolitzer, and I found it mildly interesting. The Wife, however, I found much more impressive.

Joan Castleman is traveling to Finland at the beginning of the novel. Her husband Joe is a famous novelist, and he is on his way to accept the Helsinki Prize for literature. On the flight, Joan decides their marriage is over. For too long, Joan has put up with Joe’s selfishness, including his infidelities. But their marriage is founded on a more fundamental lie.

The novel flashes back to incidents in the couple’s life, beginning with Joe’s seduction of her when she was a Smith co-ed in the 50’s and he was her literature instructor. Their relationship caused the end of his marriage and his fatherhood of a new baby.

Aside from a deft and insightful portrait of the end of a marriage, this novel deals with such feminist themes as the bias against women in the publishing industry and the sexual politics of marriage. Although I sometimes dislike Wolitzer’s apparent fascination with bodily functions, I found this carefully observed novel both dryly amusing and terribly sad. It had a twist that I saw coming, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

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

Although this novel comments on the experience of wives from the Greatest Generation, these experiences continue, in their own way, in many current-day marriages. In her marriage, Joan continually caters to the needs of her selfish and unfaithful husband on the grounds that he is a great writer. But she does even more for him than raise the kids, keep his house, meet his every need, and be a loyal wife. In fact, their relationship is entirely one-sided, with him becoming ever fatter and more self-satisfied.

In fact, the sacrifices Joan makes for her husband are shocking. But I am determined not to tell too much. Although Joan thinks the bargains they’ve made are exciting at first, she goes into her marriage with extreme naivety. In fact, over time, it is difficult to understand what Joan gets from the marriage at all, while it is clear what Joe gets from it.

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Literary Wives! Day 1005: Mrs. Hemingway

Cover for Mrs. HemingwayToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Although I liked Mrs. Hemingway better than many of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives, I still wasn’t that fond of it. Perhaps my reaction has more to do with my dislike of Hemingway.

Mrs. Hemingway purports to be about each of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives, particularly about the periods when each of them split from Hemingway (or in the case of Mary, when Hemingway died). As it is such a short book, it can’t really deal with their relationships in depth. And, I used the word “purports” advisedly, because this novel shows more insight into Hemingway than into his wives.

In fact, none of the wives seem like a distinctive character except Martha Gellhorn, and she, interestingly, is depicted with the least sympathy. She alone seems serious about her own writing career, even though two of the other wives are also writers, and she alone breaks with Hemingway.

Not that Hemingway actually breaks with anyone. Instead, he manipulates his wives and mistresses into impossible situations without making a decision, until something gives.

This novel did nothing to change my opinion of Hemingway as a loud, macho bully, so overtly masculine as to perhaps reflect an unsureness about his own sexuality. But I’m over-analyzing. An alcoholic, and a person who alternates charming and brutish behavior. In other words, a jerk.

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

Literary Wives logoIt says, don’t marry Ernest Hemingway. But seriously, I don’t think we see enough of these marriages to understand them. We start out at the end of each one, with flashbacks. But it’s hard to understand what draws these women in. I didn’t really feel the charm as described. What I saw was manipulation, cruelty, and a combination of self-regard and self-hatred. Clearly, Hadley thinks he is unbelievably handsome, which he was when he was young. The others are to a certain extent attracted by his fame.

If we are to believe this book, these marriages consist of swimming, fishing, hunting, and drunken parties. We don’t really see the characters in a day-by-day existence. Maybe we see more with Mary, Hemingway’s last wife, but she is dealing with depression and madness along with the alcoholism. Still, we don’t learn very much about what makes any of these characters tick.

The most we can say is that a wife of Hemingway’s can’t rely on him to be faithful, even when he seems at his most tender. Also, that marriage is a one-way street. Everything is for the benefit of Mr. Hemingway.

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Day 979: Literary Wives! American Housewife: Stories

Cover for American HousewifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Strange short stories seem to be one of the newest literary fads, and Helen Ellis’s certainly qualify. Not only are many of the stories in this selection strange, but her approach to a few of them is unusual, those stories consisting only of lists. Her heroines are frequently demented.

“What I Do All Day” is one of those list stories, recounting the events of the daily life of a housewife with too little to do. “The Wainscotting War” is about a feud between co-op owners over the decor of a shared hallway. This story features a woman who becomes unhinged by this disagreement, losing her job and her husband because of her behavior.

My favorite story is “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” in which an author agrees to compete on a reality show. I liked this one because it sends up so-called reality television while having mostly likable characters. But some of the other stories just go too far over the top for me, like the one about the novel sponsored by Tampax, although I get the underlying message about what it takes to get some writers to write. Of course, one of Ellis’s main tools is exaggeration, and sometimes it is funny.

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

It’s hard to generalize about marriage from these stories as the husbands are mostly in the background. Only in “Dead Doormen,” about how a wife takes over from her mother-in-law in caring for her husband’s position on the condo board, is their relationship at all stressed, and in this case, her husband is a privileged slob whom women control. Sometimes the husband is referred to affectionately, but often ironically, as when one narrator’s husband gives her a warm kiss every morning, but that’s the only one she ever gets. Although some of these wives work, most of them seem to be idle or to wait on their husbands hand and foot. I don’t get the feeling that Ellis’s housewife is representative of the women I know. On the other hand, maybe the term “housewife” is used ironically, as it is an old-fashioned word. Most of these stories seem to be steeped in irony and exaggeration.

Day 945: Literary Wives! How to Be a Good Wife

Cover for How to Be a Good WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Marta has stopped taking her medication. She has been on it for years, and the only other time she stopped, she suffered symptoms of severe depression. This time she keeps glimpsing a young blond girl. Although the girl doesn’t speak to her, she seems to be trying to tell her something.

Marta has been married to Hector for many years, and they have a grown son. Marta seems inordinately upset because their son has left home to go to college. Her marriage to Hector seems almost cartoonishly old-fashioned. Her mother-in-law gave her a book about being a good wife when she married Hector, a book that was out of date when she got it. But she has tried to follow it. Aside from behaving like a 50’s housewife, she has been set limits by Hector beyond which she is not allowed to drive. It is not safe, he claims.

The more we learn about Marta’s life, the more disturbing this novel seems. Are we to believe that Marta is descending into madness, or does it seem as if her memories of her past life are oddly murky and she’s finally remembering?

I’m not sure if we’re to believe that Marta is an unreliable narrator or not. Certainly, no one in the novel ultimately believes her, but I do. I found this novel chilling and completely compelling.

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

Caution: My answer to this question involves spoilers, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now.

I don’t believe we can generalize at all from this novel, because Marta’s is a peculiar circumstance. If we believe her, then she was captured as a young girl and held captive by Hector for two years under the house. She eventually escaped, but he recaptured her, kept her drugged, and created false memories for her to convince her she was a different person. She has lived as a drugged captive, trying to please her husband and feeling love only for her son.

Again, this is a novel about power, and Hector holds all the power in this relationship. The only power Marta has is in subversive minor disobedience, like smoking and pretending to take her pills. Although Marta finally escapes, it is at a terrible cost, since no one believes her. Are we to believe there is really no record of her kidnapping or that they either didn’t look hard enough or she is delusional? I know what I believe, but you may not agree.

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Day 842: Literary Wives! A Circle of Wives

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

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

Welcome back, Ariel!

My Review

As a detective for the Palo Alto police department, Samantha Adams does not have to deal with many violent crimes. So, when a prominent plastic surgeon is found dead in a local hotel room, registered under an assumed name, the assumption is that he died of a heart attack. But the medical examiner finds bruising on his body and what seems to be an injection site.

The first interviews around the possible crime seem routine. Dr. John Taylor’s wife Deborah is a commanding and cold presence, but nothing seems out of the ordinary. Then someone leaks shocking information to the police. Dr. Taylor had not one but three wives.

To her surprise, Sam finds that although second wife MJ and third wife Helen are completely unaware of the existence of the other wives, Deborah knows all about them. Love having departed their marriage years before, Deborah has compromised to avoid divorce by allowing John to have other wives.

MJ is a middle-aged hippy who has two grown sons by her first marriage and is close to her brother. She works as an accountant and has had a difficult life. Helen is a successful pediatric oncologist living in L.A., who was happy with a part-time married life while John worked in Palo Alto. The coroner’s opinion being brought in as murder, Sam seems to have a choice among three ready-made suspects.

This novel certainly hooked me in, although it never really answered my questions about the kind of man who would do this. As a mystery, it is also complicated. I was able to figure out how to break one character’s alibi, but the solution was more complex than that.

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

If we don’t count Samantha’s relationship with Peter, which she doesn’t admit to even being “committed,” this novel looks at three marriages. For Deborah, her marriage seems to be concerned solely with wealth and prestige. She has pushed John into his career because of its potential for making money, his only insistence being on sticking with reconstructive rather than elective plastic surgery. He has stopped doing the things that used to give him pleasure because of her opinion that he isn’t that good at them and they are a distraction. It is not such a surprise that he would have wanted a divorce but more of a surprise that he didn’t just get one. But Deborah’s will seems to have been stronger than his, he seeming to be one of those men who will do almost anything to have peace in the house.

John’s marriage to MJ is based on his having the upper hand. She is so happy to find him that she meekly accedes to all his rules about their relationship, which she later learns were designed to keep her from learning about his original marriage. She does not call his office and just accepts his odd schedule unquestioned. This marriage of six years was the least clear to me. John and MJ seem to have little in common, and the attraction seems to have to do with MJ being from such a different sphere and not being demanding. MJ herself gave the impression that what held them together wasn’t sex.

Literary Wives logoHelen and John are still in the honeymoon phase of a six-month marriage. Although Helen is a private, self-contained woman, she is in love and happy with John. Because her career is so demanding, she has no problem with a marriage where they see each other only a few times a month. Theirs seems like a marriage of equals, but it obviously isn’t, because he has lied by omission about his previous marriages and another worse lie is to come. The newness and seeming happiness of their relationship makes a discovery about a decision of John’s inexplicable.

What the novel seems to say about marriage in general is that a lot depends upon where the balance of power resides. But I think we only get a very surface look at any of these marriages. This novel doesn’t really deal in subtleties.

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