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 420: NW

Cover for NWI’m not sure what I think about NW. In reading a few reviews, I almost wish I had come to Zadie Smith first through one of her more traditional novels, as NW is almost a deconstruction of form.

NW is the postal code of an area of northwest London where Smith’s characters were brought up and reside. They were all raised in the same housing project, a group of towers that dominates the area of the impoverished and ethnically mixed Kilburn. In each section of the novel, we follow a different character.

Leah Hanwell has escaped the projects but lives within sight of them in a nicer neighborhood. She is of Irish and English heritage, married to Michel, who is half Algerian, half Guadaloupan. Her best friend Natalie Blake is first generation English of Caribbean origin. It seems that for every character in this novel, ethnic heritage is a mixed bag and not a way to find an identity.

Leah has come to resent Natalie, who has been the most successful of their acquaintances. Leah misses their former closeness and feels they now have little in common, especially since Natalie had children. The issue of children is a stressful one for Leah, who has been secretly taking birth control pills while her husband thinks they are trying to conceive. The only absolute and pure love Leah has to bestow goes to her dog Olive.

Leah is home alone when a woman comes to her door claiming to have an emergency. When the woman recognizes Leah as a former resident of the same building in the projects, all pretence of an emergency seems to disappear as they exchange information about common acquaintances. Even so, Leah impulsively hands over a fairly large sum of money. Afterwards, she vacillates between sympathy for this woman–a drug addict on the con–and a resentment that she’s been cheated. Telling Michel about it sets up a situation that ends badly.

In the second section of the book, Felix starts out his day of running a few errands in a cheerful mood. He is going to visit his father, say goodbye to an old girlfriend, perhaps buy a car. He is happy in his life. He has kicked a drug habit, is in love with his girlfriend, has a good job, and wants to lead a more productive life. We don’t anticipate what happens to Felix.

The bulk of the novel belongs to Natalie, who has remade her life, including changing her name from Keisha. She is a lawyer married to a day trader, with two children. She lives in a beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood. She is outwardly a confident, take-charge woman, but inwardly much more tentative. As one of her friends says, she’s been telling everyone all their lives that she is different from them. Yet surely, her impulse is more to fit in.

Natalie and her husband Frank pretend to be a loving couple, but when they are not out in public they spend little time with each other. Natalie doesn’t enjoy her children, either. Of all the characters, including a homeless drug addict named Nathan that Leah and Natalie had crushes on when they were all kids, she seems the most discontented. In one way, she has erased her former life. In another, she drags it along with her. All she enjoys is her work.

The novel is presented in a fragmented way. Conversations begin in the middle and sentences are cut off. Issues remain unresolved. Dialogue and descriptions are vivid but gritty, such as when Leah and Natalie push a stroller through a trash-lined neighborhood to find an ancient church in the middle of a traffic circle, its tombstones covered in graffiti. Smith’s novel is ambitious, an urban slice of several lives.

A little side note. The paperback copy of this novel has a typo on the back cover where it calls a character by the wrong name. I kept waiting for that character to appear until I figured out what was going on. That’s a pretty big mistake. Just sayin’.