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!
- 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
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.
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.
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!