How to be original when writing about infidelity? It’s been done so many times: stories of affairs, one-night cheats, deceit, confessions, broken love.
The plot line usually goes something like this. A man and a woman fall for each other. Love swells. Then love swoons. One party feels emotionally alienated. Or one party begins to lust after another, more attractive person. The cheat. The cheater at first finds thrill in the escapade but pretty quickly regrets acting out. He considers whether to come clean with her, but decides that would hurt her too much so keeps what happened to himself. The cheated-on inevitably finds out second-hand. The cheater begs for forgiveness. Sometimes she grants it, sometimes not. Usually we’re left with ambiguity, such as the final airport scene in the movie Love Actually where the wife begrudgingly says to her arriving husband (who cheated on her), “It’s good to see you.” Does this mean she’s taking him back?
Eventually, for the sake of his long-term sanity, the cheater deeply rationalizes the whole experience. “She let herself go physically,” he might say, “I was no longer attracted to her.” Or the cheating woman might say, “He was emotionally unavailable,” the catch-all invocation from women everywhere, “I felt hurt.” Yet the cheater never quite escapes his/her own moral failings, rationalization notwithstanding, and the cheated-on never quite gets over the emotional fraudulence of a person she deeply trusted.
When plotting this familiar arc, screenwriters and novelists, ever the moralizers, pass on lessons we’ve heard a million times. We are supposed to learn that acting on sexual impulse — having emotionless sex — doesn’t offer lasting satisfaction, the insta-intimacy not worth a destroyed relationship. That hiding a misdeed from your partner never works, and in fact adds to the hurt. That a guilty conscience leaks internally — you can never escape it, not when you look him deep in the eye and profess your monogamous love, not when you sit in the kitchen trying to eat cold pizza, alone.
We are taught these and other lessons over and over, but, apparently, we never learn them.
By taking on the infidelity storyline and thus the risk of irrelevance via an undifferentiated product, Zadie Smith in her third novel On Beauty shows herself a fearless novelist. In her story it’s a married male professor who sleeps first with a colleague and then with a female student. Scandalous! But also cliché, like the boss who sleeps with the secretary. Piggybacking on built-in power dynamics is easy but doesn’t win points for inventiveness.
Smith, fortunately, doesn’t just piggyback. Where she addresses infidelity — from the sex scenes to the inner-monologue guilt to marital collapse — it feels fresh more than formulaic. And this is a novel about much more than infidelity: it’s about race (the husband is white, wife black), the liberal politics of academia, Britain and the U.S., art, and the private feuds of two contrasting families. All woven together masterfully.
She’s most entertaining when she exposes a cerebral person’s contact with real life. Brilliant professors innocent to the world as it actually is. The introverted professor’s daughter who experiences “the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.” Or when the wife, cheated-on, mockingly consoles her professorial husband by saying how annoying it is when one’s dick insults one’s intellectual sensibilities; how an intricate, caring mind must also accommodate the recklessness of a penis.
It is impossible to read a story about family dynamics, love, the pretentiousness of academia, and relationships, without reflecting on where these things stand in your own life. So I imagine your enjoyment of this novel depends in part on the personal place you’re coming from when you turn to page one. Still, I recommend this novel widely.
Here’s Zadie Smith’s interview with Charlie Rose. It’s worthwhile. She is very beautiful, very smart, and has an irresistible British accent. 33 years-old. At the end Rose says, “I’m smitten talking with you.” Yep.