Today’s book for the Literary Wives book club is Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2006. The book’s description promises “a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people’s deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.” Sadly enough, I can’t say that I found anything funny in this book. And I think there was too much going on for it to be a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, or the intersections of the personal and political.
The book did present an honest look at people’s deceptions, and that aspect of it I liked. Howard and Kiki have been married for 30 years, and their three children are fairly independent at this point. I assumed that they were happy in their family life, at least until Howard cheats on his wife. I thought the way Smith treated this “incident” and its aftermath was interesting and, indeed, honest. It is only natural that something like this would affect each member of a family differently, and I got a good idea of what each was going through. My favorite part of the book was actually that quick moment when Kiki realizes exactly who Howard was cheating on her with:
“Too quickly, Claire removed her hand from Howard’s body. But Kiki wasn’t looking at Claire; she was looking at Howard. You’re married to someone for thirty years: you know their face like you know your own name. It was so quick and yet so absolute—the deception was over. Howard realized it at once, but how could Claire pick up on that tiny piece of tight skin on the left side of his wife’s mouth, or know what it meant? In her innocence, thinking she was rescuing the situation, Claire enclosed both of Kiki’s hands in her own. (…)
Claire had already taken a few steps towards Monty. Kiki joined her, but then paused and came back towards Howard and spoke in his ear. Her voice was shaky, but her grip on his wrist was not. She said one name and put a disbelieving question mark at the end of it. Howard felt his stomach fall away.”
There are so many astute observations in this one scene (much of which I had to leave out because it would have been too long otherwise)! I actually reread this part of the book several times, and I enjoyed it each time I came back to it—inasmuch as one can enjoy such a moment of shame and humiliation. How I wish that Smith had focused on this moment and its aftermath throughout the rest of the book. This one family, on the brink of falling apart, would have had plenty to offer, because not only do they have to deal with Howard’s infidelity, they also have to deal with the fact that they are a mixed-race family, which even in the liberal Boston suburb they live in presents more trouble than it should.
Further, Kiki is a very strong character. I cheered for her when she gave her husband his more-than-deserved dressing-down:
“‘You think there’s some great philosophical I-don’t-fucking-know-what because you can’t keep your dick in your pants? You’re not Rembrandt, Howard. And don’t kid yourself: honey, I look at boys all the time—all the time. I see pretty boys every day of the week, and I think about their cocks, and what they would look like butt naked –’
‘You’re being really vulgar now.’
‘But I’m an adult, Howard. And I’ve chosen my life. I thought you had too. But you’re still running after pussy, apparently.'”
Sigh! Kiki had so much potential, but I didn’t feel that she was ever fully realized. Similarly, I felt that Howard and the kids were never fully realized. I never felt like I ever really got to know any of them, and that’s a shame. Instead, the book felt cluttered with a myriad of other characters, many of which never made more than a passing appearance and thus were unnecessary in my opinion.
First and foremost, there is the Kipps family, in many respects the opposite of the Belseys. Howard and Monty Kipps are professional rivals and on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Kiki and Carlene Kipps have different ideas about what it means to be a wife and mother, yet they are nevertheless drawn to each other. The kids…, well, there’s a whole mess going on involving the kids of the two families. For a long time, I thought the Kipps were there as the counterpart to the Belseys, but somehow they kept receding into the background, even though they were the most important secondary characters.
Rather than see a to me pointless interaction between Harold and his father, I would have liked to know what Monty felt when he realized his wife decided not to tell him she was terminally ill. Rather than wasting time on one of Harold’s students working up the nerve to maybe say something in his class, I would have liked to know a little more about Kiki’s feelings. I think this is my main problem with the book: Too many times, I wondered why a certain character, incident, action, and even thought was included, when some questions that I found essential remained unanswered.
As to what this book says about wives or about the experience of being a wife… I think the one aspect that becomes clear is that even after 30 years, when one can know a spouse’s thoughts just by looking at a facial expression, there’s the danger that one doesn’t know the other person at all anymore. It’s not really an uplifting thought, is it?!
Well, Smith has 3 other books that have been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, so I will read more of her eventually. But I’ll need a little time before I turn to her again.
In the meantime, don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!
- Ariel at One Little Library
- Kay at What Me Read
- Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
- Kate at Kate Rae Davis; Reading Culture, Finding God
- TJ at My Book Strings
- Eva at The Paperback Princess