Essay: On beauty & my seven-year itch by Nia Joseph

This piece walks the line between a personal essay and a book review (Zadie Smith’s On Beauty)

If we are in the habit of being honest with ourselves, we can admit we all have that seven-year itch in our marriages. 

Now whether the seven-year itch happens in year four or year ten differs from person to person or couple to couple. 

I had mine not-so-long-ago. In year nine, if we are also being precise. On first impulse, I toyed with the idea of venturing out to look for new pastures. But I was hesitant, fact being that I’m three children in, and my body’s been their playground for almost a decade. 

While I was gathering my courage and setting my wardrobe in order, I decided to do some research. 

My current state of affairs (no pun intended) evoked in me the memory of the book ‘On Beauty’ by the British author, Zadie Smith. While the book explores subjects such as liberalism, cultural imperialism, diversity and race relations, the subject of most interest to me was that of infidelity. 

At the time I first read Smith’s fictional masterpiece, I was young, single and without offspring. I faintly recollect identifying with a different character in the book than I do now.

The central characters of the book are a couple, Prof. Howard Belsey (a British Art Historian), his wife Kiki (a generously proportioned African-American nurse), and their three children – Jerome, Levi and Zora. 

Now, I know it seems quite an unlikely coincidence, but, like Kiki, I have a son named Levi too. He is only six now, but I imagine him to grow up to be just as passionate as Levi in the book about the injustices of the world. 

Through a series of coincidences, Howard and Kiki’s oldest child, Jerome, falls madly in love with, loses his virginity to, and is eventually abandoned by Vee, the stunning and uninhibited daughter of Prof. Belsey’s arch nemesis – Sir Monty Kipps.

Zora, Howard and Kiki’s only daughter, is a staunch academic. But, like her father, she harbours some insecurities of her own. She falls in love with Carl (a talented young African-American street poet) and pursues him under the guise of helping him gain an education, much to Carl’s chagrin.  

Both Vee and Carl are portrayed as exceptionally beautiful, and Smith’s depiction of Jerome and Zora’s heartbreak is real. As real as the heartbreak of my children will be when they enter young adulthood, and as real as mine would be if I acted upon my current impulses. 

Kiki is the glue that holds this book together. She is a deep, sensual, motherly, no-nonsense woman – the kind of woman I’d like to grow to be. 

Howard, world-weary and mid-fifties, is presented with the opportunity to sleep with their friend, a petite professor of poetry – Claire Malcolm.  And although Kiki is and always has been his deepest love, he decides to venture.

Kiki eventually discovers the affair and confronts Howard, who justifies the affair on grounds of the physical change in her over the last thirty years – her weight gain/lack of ‘self-care’. Apparently, this was an aspect of the relationship that he had not been prepared for. 

Though I was using my own justifications for my future infidelity (human beings are not meant to be monogamous and so on and so forth), I couldn’t get on board with the professor’s reasoning . 

After all, wasn’t it us – Kiki and I – whose bodies had held these three beautiful children until they were ready for the world? What exactly was Prof. Belsey saying about our stretch-marked bellies and suckled breasts? 

Howard’s poor character is further revealed when he goes to bed with the enemy – actually, with the enemy’s daughter – eighteen-year-old Vee (daughter of Monty Kipps and ex-lover to his son). 

When Jerome and Zora find out about their father’s betrayals, they are devastated.

Kiki, after experiencing the initial emotional commotion that one does in the aftermath of an affair, discovers that she is heartbroken, but also relieved; relieved that she could now choose to live without the overbearing shadow of Howard’s opinions. That she could live life on her terms after thirty years of marriage. 

She decides to move on, leaving Howard to tend to the children full time, living her life on her terms from then on.

The children see Howard in a very different light, but eventually learn to accept him for who he is. 

When I started this research project, truth be told, I was most interested in Howard’s romps. Halfway into the book I was angry with Howard and found myself wanting to distance my own personality as far from his as I possibly could. As I read on, I fell deeply in love with Kiki’s character. In fact, I have new goals now, as a woman, spouse, mother and friend, inspired by her. To be more loving, more just, think deeply before acting and so much more. What stood out the most for me was that at no point during her emotional upheaval is she questioning her self-worth. The only thing she questions is her ability to stay married to a person who doesn’t see her worth. 

Off late, I seem to fantasize more and more about exploring life as a mature woman, on my own terms. Which is really what the itch is about. But I doubt that if I found myself in the middle of a separation (thanks to me scratching that itch), that I would be able to leave the children behind like Kiki did. Or that I would be as gracious as she was. 

The fictional novel I chose to base my research on, just like it’s non-fictional counterparts, describes similar outcomes (grief, separation, etc). I’m wise enough to know that this is a road better not travelled. Even though I’m disappointed not to have added to my repertoire of justifications, I like to think of myself as a sport. And a good sport concedes when proven wrong. So, for the moment, it seems best to shelve my impulses, not scratch the itch and return to the original plot of my story. 

Zadie Smith’s masterpiece is loosely based on E.M Forster’s Howards’ End. Both Smith and Forster explore similar themes – families with conflicting values, class and feminism. What was starkly evident in Smith’s rendition, is her ability to connect beauty with truth, and with justice. 

Reminding me of values that are sometimes lost as life is traversed. 

And of the things of beauty that I must remember to see. 

Author’s Bio

An entrepreneur by day, and writer by candle-light, Nia Joseph is passionate about all things literature.  Her current writing projects include a personal blog and a series of children’s books. As a writer she aspires to bring humor and hope to even the darkest of truths. Nia Joseph, her husband and three young children live in Bangalore for the moment.  


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