It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read On Beauty by Zadie Smith!
Howard Belsey is an Englishman living in the U.S., a professor at a prestigious university. He is married to Kiki, a Black American woman, who could not be more different from him. As they approach their 30th wedding anniversary, Howard complicates their life by having a short-lived affair with someone – when Kiki realizes he’s been unfaithful, he admits it but lies about the identity of the woman.
As Kiki and Howard try to decide what their future looks like, their three children are each beginning to live their own, very separate lives: Jerome, who escaped to England to live and work for Howard’s professional opposite, Monty Kipps, is discovering his faith and leaning into a more conservative belief system, and believes himself to fall in love with disastrous results; hot-headed Zora, agitating for a cause, brings a talented young man from the Boston streets into the college fold, ignoring everything except her own thoughts on the matter; and Levi, content to ignore his privileged background to hang out with his new friends on Boston’s streets, hustling for a living, slipping further and further from the heart of the family.
So this is now the third book of Zadie Smith’s that I’ve read and this was probably the one that frustrated me the most. With White Teeth and Swing Time, I found enough in them to keep the reading momentum going and at no point did I want to throw the book across the room.
But On Beauty? There were moments that I wanted to scream. I’m not here to dispute the fact that Smith can write – she is clearly super talented. But there is something so cold, so distant about what she writes. I also felt kind of misled about how this book was all going to play out – the synopsis made it seem like Jerome made a bad decision and as the Belseys become more involved in the lives of the Kippses, all sorts of conflict came up. But that ‘conflict’ was ice cold and had less to do with the co-mingling of the families and everything to do with Howard Belsey going through a mid-life crisis and chasing pretty young things.
You know how there’s that idea that in order for a book to be considered serious literature it has to do with a white, middle aged man facing his mortality by cheating on his long-suffering wife? I think with On Beauty Zadie Smith herself might have bought into that idea.
I almost rage-quit reading this when Howard sleeps with the daughter of his enemy. The 18 year old daughter. I just cannot emphasize enough how much I don’t care about the cliche of a mid-life crisis.
I wanted more Kiki. I wanted to see more of her dealing with her husband’s total betrayal of the whole life they had built together. I wanted her to scream at him, kick him out of the house that was hers, see her grow close to Monty Kipps’ wife, Carlene. Instead, I got lame-ass Howard, feeling sorry for himself, outshone in every area of his life because he sucks.
There’s also something really confusing about the way Smith writes about race. It feels almost self-loathing and it always leaves me disappointed that she shied away from taking it on in any meaningful way. She seems to have the pieces there – interracial couple, biracial children, class differences exacerbated by race – and then she just leaves them there to…do what I’m not exactly sure. Just read this, to get a sense of what I mean.
What does the book say about being a wife?
So, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s get to the point of this exercise! I think, when On Beauty leaves enough room for Kiki, it asks this question of marriage: Is it a what or a whom that one lives for?
Kiki has spent the last thirty years moulding her life around that of her husband and children. She didn’t stay at home, but she had the kind of career that could be picked up and moved, she made time for the kinds of events her husband needed her at, ensured that the kids were where they needed to be. So when Howard cheats on her, essentially throws their life in her face, she doesn’t know what to do. What about her dreams? What is it that gives her life meaning now?
I think the question of how a wife lives is illustrated the best in a conversation that Kiki has with Carlene Kipps. Carlene and her family have moved to the area as Monty has accepted a position at the same school as Howard, but she is no longer the vibrant woman she was a year ago. Carlene is seriously ill with a mystery sickness (mystery as she doesn’t disclose it to anyone), and Kiki finds herself drawn to this woman.
She goes over one day and brings a pie as a kind of peace offering. They discuss their lives, their husbands and children, and to a degree, their philosophies on life and love. For Carlene, it’s been her life’s work to sacrifice everything in the service of her husband and his dreams. She understands that it frees her to allow Monty to chase and “possess” the young women he becomes obsessed with for short periods of time. She says that she used to fight it but came to realize that it took too much energy, that when she just allowed it to happen, it meant that her husband was able to do better work.
“I lived because I loved this person. I am very selfish, really. I lived for love. I never really interested myself in the world – my family, yes, but not the world. I can’t make a case for my life, but it is true.”
So does a woman live her life in the world, or does she give that up to live for a person she loves? In the end, Kiki makes a decision to live in the world, even temporarily, to see what her life looks like without the complication of Howard’s ‘love’ (can we call it that? Selfish ass).
I think it’s safe to say that my Zadie Smith experiment is over.