1 of 4
By Zadie Smith
464 pages; Penguin Books

Zadie Smith's very loose retelling of E.M. Forster's Howards End centers on the fraying union between Kiki and Howard, an interracial couple whose marriage is gravely wounded due to Howard's affair with a colleague at the university where he teaches. As well as being a complicated portrait of infidelity—Howard loves Kiki deeply, despite his failure as a husband—it's also a book about beauty itself. In Kiki and Howard's case, it's about the loss of it and what it means to grow old together, to find (or not find) a deepening beauty in your partner's journey through middle age, their gradual imprisonment in an alien body. (As Kiki says, "I'm not going to be getting any thinner or any younger, my ass is gonna hit the ground, if it hasn't already—and I want to be with somebody who can still see me in here. I'm still in here.") The scene that I think about most often, though, is the moment late in the book when Kiki and Howard finally have the colossal fight they've been avoiding, and then Kiki says something accidentally comic—"I never did. You did. When you did what you did"—and they both start cracking up over the "overabundance of 'dids.'" Which leads, of course, to their screwing on the floor. They go from hate to love in six seconds flat. I know a long-married couple who keep two pairs of Groucho Marx glasses handy in the house so that when they have a particularly bad fight, they can put the glasses on, which inevitably reduces them to giggles. But I've found that my wife and I are always one moment away from making each other laugh. We just have to remember to look closely enough. Smith perfectly captures the hair's distance between fury and affection, desire and disgust, sorrow and bliss.