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 1104: Vanity Fair

Cover for Vanity FairVanity Fair is a reread for me for my Classics Club list. It has been a long time since I’ve read it, though, and I was curious about whether I would have the same reaction to it.

The novel, of course, is Thackeray’s famous satire of society that follows two English girls through their launches into society and later lives. One is Amelia Sedley, the gentle, conventional heroine who has been the only girl to befriend Rebecca Sharp, the charity student. Amelia is only eager to marry George Osborne, her long-betrothed fiancé. Rebecca is determined to be a success and marry a rich man.

It may be perhaps predicted that good, honest Amelia suffers much more than conniving Becky. Early in the book, Amelia’s marriage to George is threatened when her father loses his fortune. Even though we readers already know that George cares for no one more than himself, Amelia goes into a decline.

Meanwhile, Becky makes her own improvident marriage. She runs off with Rawdon Crawley, the heir to her employer’s fortune, thinking that she will be able to bring Miss Crawley around.

The early days of both marriages are set against the backdrop of the battle of Waterloo, as both George Osbourne and Rawdon Crawley are serving officers. With them is George’s best friend, Dobbin, who falls madly in love with Amelia at first sight and helps her throughout the novel.

As a girl, I thought Amelia was completely insipid and admired Becky Sharp. But it must be said—Becky has no morals. This time through, although I still found Amelia a bit tiresome, I found myself sympathizing more with Rawdon and Dobbin.

In any case, this novel is often funny and always entertaining. Although Thackeray presents us with a conventional heroine for the time in Amelia, you can’t help thinking he had some admiration for the unsinkable Becky. By following her adventures, Thackeray shows us the foibles of members of polite society: the fights over inheritance, the sycophancy, the treatment of people as their fortunes wax and wane.

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Day 1090: The Vicar of Wakefield

Cover for The Vicar of WakefieldI originally selected The Vicar of Wakefield for my Classics Club list because I was trying to choose a few works from different centuries. For the 18th century, I selected this novel and a few others.

Apparently, there is some debate among scholars about whether to take this novel straightforwardly as a sentimental work or to view it as a satire of sentimental novels. Since it reminds me of nothing so much as Candide, I take it as a satire. Even the title is confusing, since the vicar leaves Wakefield for another town early in the novel.

Reverend Primrose leads a comfortable life with his family as the Vicar of Wakefield. His own private fortune is enough that he has made over his salary to various charities. However, early in the novel, he loses his fortune when the merchant he has invested it with runs off. At that point, he leaves Wakefield and his considerable salary for a much smaller salary in another town. Why he does this instead of using his salary for himself is unclear.

Although the family is now poor, Primrose is determined that they can still live happily if they simplify their lives. However, some of his family are not willing to simplify, and their troubles are not over. His oldest boy, George, has had his engagement broken off by his fiancée’s father. And things even get worse. From here on, every decision they make turns out poorly, touching everyone in the family. In fact, though trusting and ready to see the good side of everyone, Primrose shows himself to be remarkably poor in judgment. The family is cheated, deceived, and persecuted by enemies. All the time, though, Primrose tries to see the good in every situation.

This short novel moves along nicely and has a charming though inconsistent narrator in Reverend Primrose. Its narrative is occasionally interrupted, though, by philosophizing and sermonizing, which I found tedious. Some of the plot twists and masquerades are easy to predict, but overall the novel is lively and a bit silly.

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Day 903: Some Do Not

Cover for Some Do NotBest Book of the Week!
Some Do Not is the first volume of Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology “Parade’s End,” which is considered one of the great novels about World War I. For those who are interested, an excellent TV series came out a few years ago starring Benedict Cumberbatch (or maybe for those who are interested in Benedict Cumberbatch).

When we first meet Christopher Tietjens in 1912 or so, he is separated from his wife Sylvia and on a golfing trip with MacMaster, his coworker and friend from school days. We eventually learn that Sylvia was having an affair with a married man when she met Tietjens, and the paternity of their son is in question. Sylvia has run off to Europe with a lover, but Christopher has just received a letter from her asking to come back.

Christopher Tietjens is a big clumsy man who is a sort of genius with facts and figures and works for the government. (That was the one weakness of the casting of Cumberbatch, who is neither big nor clumsy, in the part, as several times he is forced to refer to himself that way, which struck me as odd before I read the book.) He is also absolutely principled and honest. He agrees to take Sylvia back because that is how a gentleman behaves.

On this golfing trip, though, complications begin that are to affect the rest of his life. A member of the golfing party is General Campion, an idiotic but well-meaning man who likes Sylvia and so thinks that any problems in the marriage must be Christopher’s fault. When Christopher helps a couple of suffragettes escape from the police, the General immediately concludes that one of them, Valentine Wannop, must be Christopher’s mistress, even though Christopher has never met her before. Later on, similar misunderstandings contrive to blacken his reputation.

Egging everyone on is Sylvia, who takes a long time to understand the character of her husband. She believes he and Valentine must be lovers and even spreads the rumor that he is sharing a mistress with MacMaster. Mrs. Duchemin, whose husband is an academic with mental issues, is indeed having an affair with MacMaster, but Christopher’s only crime is to help MacMaster financially. Some of Sylvia’s ex-lovers or would-be lovers are also eager to harm him.

Christopher does fall in love with Valentine, but he doesn’t act on it because he is incapable of treating her dishonorably. With social ruin threatening him, he goes to war.

I tried out this first volume to see if I would like it after having watched the TV series. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the other three volumes. This is a great novel, about how a completely honorable but reticent man is misunderstood and dishonored by almost everyone around him.

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Day 895: Red Pottage

red-pottageBest Book of the Week!
Red Pottage is another find for me this year of a novel by a terrific classic author. I can include Mrs. Oliphant, Dorothy Whipple, and Julia Strachey in this list of classic authors I have not read before that I really enjoyed. My Doughty Library edition says the novel contains “every ingredient for a Victorian bestseller” and mentions wickedness and greed.

Hugh Scarlett has been having an affair with a married woman, Lady Newhaven. At first he thought he was in love with her, but now he has recognized her for who she is—a shallow and stupid beauty. He has already decided to break with her when he meets Rachel West at a party. At one glance he decides that Rachel is the woman to make a better man of him.

Rachel has also attracted the attention of Dick Vernon, a wine grower from Australia who is visiting his friends and family. Rachel likes him, but she is thinking of others.

Rachel has an unhappy past. Once the daughter of a wealthy man, she lost her fortune with her father’s death. For seven years she struggled to support herself, living in London’s East End and working as a typist. At that time, she fell deeply in love with an artist, Mr. Tristram, and was devastated when she realized he had no intention of marrying her. At the beginning of the novel, she has inherited another fortune and still believes herself in love with Mr. Tristram. Now that she has a fortune, though, she is looking like a much better prospect to him.

Another important character is Hester Gresley, an author who has been Rachel’s friend since childhood. Although Hester is better born than Rachel, her fortunes have suffered as Rachel’s have improved. She lives with her brother James, a rector who disregards her talent as a novelist and can only see his own point of view. James’s wife is jealous of Hester, and the children lovable but noisy. Hester finds herself unable to work during the daytime, so she stays up into the morning working, only to be accused by her sister-in-law of laziness.

Red Pottage is a story about morals and manners. That sounds boring, but it is quite satirical at times, while at other times it brought me to tears. The central conflict begins shortly after Hugh meets Rachel, when Lord Newhaven confronts him about Hugh’s affair with his wife. He makes Hugh a challenge, that they draw “lighters” (matches? straws?) and whoever draws the short one must take his own life within four months.

To complicate matters, Lady Newhaven eavesdrops on this conversation but does not learn who drew the short lighter. Then foolish, self-centered Lady Newhaven confides in Rachel, along with her assumption that if her husband dies, she will marry Hugh.

The story turned out just about how I thought it would, but I found the journey completely gripping. Another success from my Classics Club list!

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Day 883: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Cover for Salmon Fishing in the YemenI enjoyed the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a light romantic comedy, so I picked up the novel. Although most of the same elements are there, the novel is a bit darker and more satirical, the emphasis on government idiocy.

Dr. Alfred Jones is a scientist for the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. He loves his work but is taken aback when he receives a letter about assisting with a project to establish salmon in the Yemen, to be sponsored by a wealthy sheik. Fred thinks the idea is scientifically absurd and ignores it.

But government officials in the prime minister’s office get wind of the project and see it as a possible source of good publicity about the relationship between the U.K. and the Middle East. The outcome is that Fred is ordered to follow through on the project.

Fred is pleasantly surprised at the apparent competence of the project manager, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, but it is when he meets the sheik that he begins to have an interest in the project. The sheik is a devoted fisherman who has an outlandish but possibly feasible plan for his project.

Fred’s marriage isn’t going smoothly. His no-nonsense wife Mary has accepted a temporary posting to Geneva without consulting him. She is far better paid than he is and is dismissive in her attitudes toward his career, even when a political shift toward the project gets him fired and he is taken on by Harriet’s company at a lot higher salary.

Harriet also has some personal problems. Her fiancé Robert has been posted somewhere in the Middle East, and she is no longer receiving his letters. Nor can she get any information about him from the Marines.

This novel is epistolary, told completely in emails, Fred’s diary entries, letters, transcripts of interviews, and newspaper articles. It is occasionally funny, almost ridiculously satirical, and a little bit sweet. However, if you are hoping for the movie ending, you will be disappointed, because in the movies, the boy always has to get the girl, especially if he’s played by Ewan McGregor. In fiction, things can be more complicated.

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