Literary Wives: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

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

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

My first Zadie Smith was a success. I loved the ordinary moments, the dialogue, the character interaction and the family dynamics. (Even though the family dynamics were often painful to witness.) I found it hard to like any of the characters, with the exception of Kiki. This isn’t a criticism. Howard, especially made me crazy – what was he thinking?! I didn’t even like Kiki’s children very much. There were things about them that I liked or admired, but just didn’t think they were shining examples of the human race. Which they shouldn’t necessarily be at their age. I’d like to check back in on them now and see how they’re doing.

With so much going on in the book – politics, religion, campus life, adolescence, marriage, infidelity, race, feminism – it’s hard to know what Zadie Smith’s intention was with the story. But I think, above all, she does a wonderful job of capturing one family’s experience of being human in an imperfect world.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is because I was reading it at a busy time and it became my one and only book for almost two weeks. So I was forced to take my time with it and I found myself really getting immersed in the lives of the characters. Whether I liked them or not, at the end I was sad to see them go.

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

The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.

Kiki and Howard have been married for 30 years. And until Howard’s very major slip-up, they had been doing pretty well. Despite the fact that couples all around them seemed to be getting divorced, they were still tight.

Almost all the men Howard knew were already divorced, had begun again with new women; they told him things like ‘you get to the end of a woman’, as if their wives had been pieces of string. Is that what happened? Had he finally got to the end of Kiki?

There’s infidelity, betrayal, anger and resentment, but above all I think that Kiki and Howard’s story demonstrates the fact  that individuals change over time, and therefore so does their marriage. And the question is… can the marriage adapt to all the change, or is it doomed? In the case of Kiki and Howard, we don’t get to find out what happens in the long run… there’s too much to consider. Who even are they anymore if they’re not married to each other? Do they try to build the trust back up in order to preserve the life they built together, or is it time to cut loose?

For, though it had taken almost a year, Kiki had begun to release the memory of Howard’s mistake. She had had all the usual conversations with friends and with herself; she had measured a nameless, faceless woman in a hotel room next to what she knew about herself; she had weighed one stupid night against a lifetime of love and felt the difference in her heart. If you’d told Kiki a year ago, ‘Your husband will screw somebody else, you will forgive him, you will stay’, she wouldn’t have believed it. You can’t say how these things will feel, or how you will respond, until they happen to you.

She saw differently now; that was one of the side-effects. Whether the new way of seeing was the truth, she couldn’t say. But it was certainly stark, revelatory. She saw every fold and tremble of his fading prettiness. She found she could muster contempt for even his most neutral physical characteristics. The thin, papery, Caucasian nostril holes. The doughy ears sprouting hairs that he was careful to remove and yet whose ghostly existence she continued to catalogue. The only things that threatened to disturb her resolve were the sheer temporal layers of Howard as they presented themselves before her: Howard at twenty-two, at thirty, at forty-five and fifty-one; the difficulty of keeping all these other Howards out of her consciousness; the importance of not being sidetracked, of responding to only this most recent Howard, the 57-year-old Howard. The liar, the heart-breaker, the emotional fraud.

A question raised by Howard… (I would have taken Howard more seriously if it hadn’t been for his second slip-up; one that seemed a lot worse than the first one.) …if the experience of sex is different for each individual, how do we reconcile our differences?

“Why does the sex have to mean everything? Ok, it can mean something, but why everything? Why do thirty years have to go down the toilet because I wanted to touch somebody else?”

There is so much more to this book than what I’ve touched on. So much more that it felt overwhelming and I decided to focus only on Kiki and Howard’s marriage; leaving out The Kipps and their very different marriage, Kiki and Howard’s children and how they react individually to their father’s infidelity, Kiki’s race and weight and how those both have an influence on her marriage and how she feels about Howard’s infidelity. Just to name a few. I think I could read it again.

Favourite line (which has nothing to do with marriage and wives):

A five-year age gap between siblings is like a garden that needs constant attention. Even three months apart allows the weeds to grow up between you.

My library copy went with me to Prince Edward Island for a week.

Have you read this? Do you have a favourite Zadie Smith book?


In October we’ll be reading and discussing Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Join us!

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52 thoughts on “Literary Wives: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    On Beauty is by far my favourite Zadie Smith novel. It’s interesting to think of it as a loose update of E.M. Forster’s Howards End –> “Howard’s end” in the novel.

    • Naomi says:

      So it might just be downhill from here! I think I would still like to read both White Teeth and Swing Time at some point.
      I thought about reading Howard’s End first (because I’ve never read it), but I didn’t get to it. Oh well, it’s good on its own!

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I read both Howard’s End and On Beauty in grad school, and for some reason I knew On Beauty was a retelling of Howard’s End. It’s funny to see weird moments that line up exactly, but then there were moments on On Beauty that surprised me in a bad way, like when the daughter suddenly decides she wants to have sex and how she wants to have sex (you probably remember the scene…). I appreciated the story of the wife in this book, but everything else felt like clutter to me.

      • Naomi says:

        There were a lot of moments in this book that surprised me in a bad way! I wanted to throttle the characters half the time.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    I have read this one and enjoyed it very much but unlike you I raced through it one holiday and suspect I didn’t consider it as much as your post shows it deserves. I really should try harder to fit in rereads.

  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I am glad you enjoyed this one! You liked it much more than I did; I thought there was simply too much going on the entire time. Kiki had so many great lines and offered the best insight of all the characters in my opinion. She was by far my favorite in this book, and I wish I would have gotten to know her better.

    • Naomi says:

      I think the fact that there was so much going on made me look forward to picking it up over and over (over a two week period) – I never knew what was going to happen next.

      I think this book could actually do with a sequel. I’d love to know what Kiki’s final decision turned out to be (or if they’re still in limbo), and what stage her children have gotten to!

  4. Jennifer D says:

    I have read a few of Smith’s books, and have enjoyed White Teeth the most.

    My in-person book club actually just read On Beauty in May. While there was a lot we appreciated about it – and lots to talk about – overall it wasn’t loved. I was happy to finally get to this read as I’ve had it on my shelf for years. So happy you loved it!! 🙂

  5. whatmeread says:

    I think I had about the same reaction as you did. I didn’t like the characters and I thought that too much was going on. I did feel as if the reaction to the affair was more realistic than in other books. Kiki takes her time to figure out what she really feels and both of them try to keep their marriage working. But Howard is just too self-obsessed to give it the right kind of trial.

  6. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I really enjoyed this one and found it more entertaining than White Teeth, I do remember being surprised at its success at the time, I think my favourite though is the most recent one I’ve just read Swing Time for its excellent characterisations and insights into mother daughter relationships and absent fathers, a compelling enough plot and lots of thought provoking revelations.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m thinking because I liked On Beauty I might have better success than some with her other books. Swing Time and White Teeth are both on my list. Your review of Swing Time clinched that one for me!

  7. JacquiWine says:

    I was about to say pretty much the same as Rebecca, but she beat me to it! This is my favourite Zadie Smith too (with the Embassy of Cambodia a fairly close second). It’s been quite a while since I read it, so my memories are fairly sketchy now. I do recall Kiki, though – such an interesting character.

  8. lauratfrey says:

    I loved On Beauty! It was my first Smith too, and I went into it with few expectations or preconceptions, which was probably for the best. One day I need to read Howards End, as this book is supposed to be a homage. I loved NW (more so) and White Teeth (less so) as well. For some reason, though, I have no interest in Swing TIme.

    • Naomi says:

      I also went into On Beauty with few expectations – even low ones – the reactions to her books seem to be all over the place! I think that helped a lot.
      Good to know you liked NW!

  9. Col says:

    I found reading On Beauty a bit uncomfortable ( thought Howard was bloody irritating but had horrible feeling there’s a bit of him in me!!!) but I really did enjoy it. It’s been the best of the Zadie Smith books I’ve read till a few weeks ago – I thought Swing Time was great!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s always disconcerting to find something of yourself in an unlikeable character, isn’t it?
      Howard was hard to like, but there were also glimpses of his good side. Something I found in most of the characters.
      Another vote for Swing Time!

  10. annelogan17 says:

    As I said on Eva’s blog it’s been so long since I’ve read this book I have no recollection as to whether I even liked it or not, but I do love your reviews of it. I find it hard to read books about long marriages falling apart because I worry that that will be me in thirty years. I’ve only been married for 6 years, and i can’t even fathom being together for that long and deciding to split with someone, it seems so sad and wasteful 😦

    • Naomi says:

      It does! I think one of the reasons I like to read about it might be to help prevent it in my own marriage? Or if it ever happens to me, maybe I’ll be better prepared, or not feel so much like a failure? I don’t know…
      We’ve made it to 19 years, so fingers crossed we’ll be fine for another 19 more. 🙂

  11. Liz Dexter says:

    What an interesting group! I really liked White Teeth and Autograph Man, didn’t go near NW as I heard there was animal cruelty and haven’t got to Swing Time yet. I did enjoy On Beauty and in fact rushed to re-read Howard’s End after I finished it!

  12. Sarah's Book Shelves says:

    I really liked the writing in the quotes you shared! Intriguing takes on marriage, etc. I also read Eva’s review…she wanted to throw the book across the room…haha!

  13. The Paperback Princess says:

    I love the photo you took of the book on vacation with you!

    I know you know I don’t agree with you on this book, hahaha. It frustrates me with Smith’s work in general that she always feels so close to profound greatness but she complicates everything with too much. Too many characters, too many backgrounds, too many social issues – just excess.

    You know I don’t need to LIKE characters to enjoy a book. But I really can’t read any more “poor me, my life is just not what I thought it would be – why don’t hot girls love me anymore” from middle aged dudes. I can’t. Maybe if Howard hadn’t been the focus of the book (can you call it a focus?), if we’d had more time with Kiki! And Carlene! Even Zora or Claire! What’s the real deal with Victoria? Why was Victoria’s brother even a thing?

    I keep coming back to Zadie Smith but I think this might be it. On Beauty was the worst of the bunch for me!

  14. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) says:

    I loved the writing in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, but I found the ending a bit anticlimactic. I loved the writing enough that I’d definitely give another one of her books a try. I’m not sure it will be this one though. It sounds fascinating and I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on it, but it seems some of the characters are not just unlikable, but inexplicable. Characters who make decisions that seem nonsensical to me are a pet peeve of mine and it seems like Howard might fall into that category.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m not sure that his actions are inexplicable, but they’re certainly maddening!
      I also loved her writing and plan to read another one of her books because of it. It really sounds as though opinions vary quite a bit on which of her books is the best, so I guess it’ll be whichever one I have on my shelf (which I think is White Teeth).

  15. The Cue Card says:

    I liked her novel White Teeth but haven’t read any others of hers. This one sounds like a story of a marriage/family torn apart. TJ didn’t seem to care for it and I wonder a bit if I can hang with it if the characters are all unlikable. Hmm. We will see.

  16. buriedinprint says:

    What I loved most about this one were the interconnections with Howard’s novel, especially the ways in which she explored class in comparison with how it’s exhibited in his story. Maybe because I was so conscious of it being a retelling, and had JUST read the Forster right before, I got caught up in the cleverness of it more than the characters’ stories. Whereas with White Teeth and NW, I was really caught up in character first (I loved White Teeth – right up ’til the last two pages, which felt very grad-studenty to me). Swing Time is terrific too. I’ll look forward to hearing about whichever one you choose to read next. And I love that quote about the time between siblings: wonderfully put! All her stuff seems worth rereading to me, which is pretty great, actually: like you’re getting more than one book with each story.

    • Naomi says:

      I think sometime I would like to read Howard’s End so I can catch some of the connections – I feel like I missed out on that!

      I’m looking forward to my next Zadie Smith, but who knows when it will be…

      • buriedinprint says:

        But it’s so cool that the novel appeals so much for readers whether the base story was part of the reading of it or not – I love that she is able to do that, write from two directions. In a few years (months?!), I’ll have forgotten the details and maybe I can read for characters first then!

        Oh, I know…it’s just a matter of wantingt to. But it could be years – decades! 🙂

      • Naomi says:

        I kind of agree. Which is why I just read Rose & Poe (by Jack Todd), which is another twist on The Tempest, without having read The Tempest first. I thought about it, but decided there was value in reading it just as it is. I might go and have a quick look at The Tempest now that I’ve read it though. The question is… before or after I write down my thoughts? Hmm.

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