REVIEW: You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Awaeke Emezi
Dear Awaeke Emezi,
I’ve been meaning to try one of your books for years, ever since I read Ana Grilo’s review of Pet for Kirkus. The book sounded really good and really different, but somehow, I never got around to reading it. However, when I heard that you’d written a romance, I knew I had to jump on the ARC. Also, there was the gorgeous title.
It’s been five years since the death of Feyi Adekola’s beloved husband in a car accident in front of Feyi’s eyes, and Feyi still sometimes wishes that she, too, had died. She and Jonah married young and only had one year together, but he was the love of her life.
Feyi is an artist and much of her work is painted in blood (pig blood, not human, of course). She relives the accident that shattered her life over and over in dreams. She knows she will grieve forever but also that she needs to live again. Recently Feyi moved to New York with her best friend and one-time lover, Joy, in the hope that maybe she can figure out how to do that.
The book opens with Feyi having hot sex in a restroom with an attractive stranger, Milan. At a rooftop party, Feyi’s gaze connected with Milan’s and she was very direct when she drew him away from the party. It’s the first time since in years that Feyi has had sex with anyone, but she came to the party to make a conscious attempt to do that.
Feyi and Milan begin a casual friends-with-benefits relationship. They don’t really get close, and the heat they felt the first time they had sex settles into something that is more comfortable than sizzling. Soon into this, a friend of Milan’s, Nasir, comes on to Feyi despite her and Milan’s relationship. Feyi thinks Nasir is a player and puts him in his place, but he then apologizes and says things that suggested to me, though not quite as strongly to Feyi, that he fell for her on the spot and now can’t forget her. The intensity of his want lingers in Feyi’s mind and she breaks up with Milan (he doesn’t mind that much) to get together with Nasir.
Feyi doesn’t fall into bed with Nasir. This thing with him feels like something that could develop into a real relationship and after the loss of her beloved Jonah, that’s scary as well as (in her mind) possibly disloyal. She wants to take it slow and just be friends at first. She tells Nasir as much and he agrees—his longing for her is such that he’ll agree to anything.
When Feyi tells Nasir about the accident and about Jonah’s death, he tells her of his mother’s death when he was very young, but his understanding of her grief doesn’t seem that deep. Eventually she trusts him enough to show him her art.
Nasir tells Feyi that his father is an art collector and a friend of the curator in the National Museum on the tropical island where Nasir’s father lives (I don’t think which island is specified). One of the participating artists in an exhibit on Black Diaspora artists has pulled out and now there is an open slot. Nasir’s father got Rebecca Owo, the curator, to consider Feyi and Rebecca chose her. Nasir is going home for a few weeks anyhow, and he offers to bring Feyi to vacation with him so that she can also participate. His dad is loaded, has a huge house with lots of rooms, and loves hosting artists. Feyi can visit not only as an artist but also as Nasir’s friend; his dad will host her and fly them out.
Feyi is skeptical about the “just friends” aspect. It’s a big thing to do for someone who has only been a friend for a month or so even if they both hope that it will eventually develop into more. Nasir however says that his friends have visited the island with him multiple times. Feyi says she needs to sleep on it, but she kisses him. It is an emotional, vulnerable moment for Feyi but Nasir is gentle. Then she asks for less restraint and her heart starts beating fast. What Nasir represents—the possibility of life after Jonah—is scary, but the kiss is also good. Feyi later decides to go, but begins to feel a little pressured by Nasir’s big gesture and the strength of his need.
This only gets more confusing for Feyi when Alim, Nasir’s father, picks them up at the airport. Alim is a famous chef who was on a reality show, and is not only wealthy but highly attractive. Before she meets him, Nasir attempts to reassure Feyi (it reads more like a desperate need to reassure himself) that his father isn’t gay. Feyi notices a little bronzer on Alim’s face and later on, painted toenails. Eventually we learn more about his sexuality. Regardless, Alim is widowed, polite and generous to Feyi, but no more than that. She is nevertheless wildly attracted to him, more than she has ever been to Milan, Nasir, or any man other than Jonah.
Feyi finds herself torn between the son and the father, her head and her heart, and her emotional struggle with this is the theme of the rest of the book, in addition to the primary one about her grief and her reawakening to life. To say much more would be to spoil.
This book was unusual and after Feyi reached the island and the triangle began, engaging. My main problem in reading it was that I went in taking into account your original statement that the book was a romance, and while there’s a big romantic subplot and a HEA, it reads more like Women’s Fiction. Women’s Fiction isn’t a genre I read often because I am not really that interested in it most of the time.
One reason You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty didn’t read like a romance to me is that it is, more than anything, a book about Feyi finding herself in the wake of her husband’s death. That comes ahead of the romance.
I enjoyed this one more than I do much of WF but I still wished it was more of a romance.
This is primarily a book about triangles. There’s the Feyi/ Milan/ Nasir triangle, then the Feyi/ Jonah’s memory /Nasir triangle, and later yet, the Feyi / Alim/ Nasir triangle. Feyi’s best friend, Joy, is involved with a married woman, Justina, so that is another triangle in the book.
As such, this is also a book about the unattainable. Feyi can’t ever have Jonah, the love of her life, again, no matter how she wants him back. Milan is also unattainable–not that Feyi wants him, but it’s clear that he’s got something that is to him, much more important than Feyi ever will be, and he doesn’t know if he can attain it either. It’s not clear if Feyi will ever be someone Nasir will attain, and Joy has been involved with a string of unattainable women. Is Alim attainable to Feyi, and Feyi to Alim? Possibly, but only at great cost.
All these people, it seems, have been and/or are lost in desires that may be futile, emotional needs that may go unfulfilled. Feyi needs to awaken from the torpor she has been mired in since she lost Jonah, but is that possible for her? That is the foremost question that Feyi must answer in the book.
Feyi was a character with depth and I like the way the book showed that grief generates an inevitable and natural self-centeredness—it’s hard to always focus on anything outside of it. Through Feyi and Alim we also see that the loss of someone deeply dear to us isn’t something that can be gotten over, nor something to get over; there is only learning to live with it.
Multiple Black or predominantly Black cultures are portrayed or referenced—Feyi’s Nigerian one, Alim and Nasir’s island culture, Joy’s Ghanaian one, and of course Black American culture, represented by Milan and even by Feyi, Joy and Nasir to an extent since they’ve spent much of their life in the States. I enjoyed being immersed in these.
(One thing I did struggle with, though, was Joy and Feyi’s reference to Milan, Nasir and their group of friends by N word except ending with an A. I know its meaning is very different when spoken by Black people to and about each other and I’m not suggesting that the book should have catered to white readers or done anything differently, but I still flinched.)
Joy and Feyi’s tight friendship was supportive but at times Joy’s advice to Feyi confused Feyi and made it harder for her to understand her own emotions. This was very human on both their parts, I feel, even if it didn’t make me thrilled with Joy. I was rooting for Joy’s relationship with Justina; yes, it was adultery, but it was also clearly love. It was also a companion storyline to Feyi’s—both Feyi and Joy’s lover faced dilemmas in their respective triangles.
My favorite character in the book was, surprisingly, Milan. There was a moment where he really came through for Feyi as a friend. Alim was also appealing and I could understand Feyi’s attraction to him. I could have used more physical description of him, though—it was far easier to form a picture of Jonah.The book is diverse, of course, with three queer characters (Feyi, Joy and Alim), several Black ones (Feyi, Nasir, Alim, Milan, Joy, Nasir’s sister Lorraine, the late Jonah and Marisol, and Rebecca), one that is South Asian (an art collector who comes in late in the story) and another with an islander background (a friend of the family and particularly of Alim).
Since Feyi is bisexual and Joy, whom Nasir had been introduced to as Feyi’s close friend, is lesbian, I didn’t understand why Nasir’s “reassurances” (not the book’s word, I’m just being ironic) that his father wasn’t gay were not a deal breaker to her. It was not cool at all and made me feel that Nasir didn’t want to see his father and didn’t fully see Feyi.
I also didn’t fully believe the premise that Nasir didn’t feel the loss of his mother that deeply. Losing your mother in early childhood would be earthshaking and devastating, it seems to me.
One of the things I liked about the book was how it didn’t shy away from how messy this situation was. For a long time Feyi concealed her feelings for Alim from everyone—Alim, Nasir, Nasir’s sister Lorraine, and even to an extent from herself. This was human and it also created tension in the story; it was clear that at some point all this was going to blow up in Feyi’s and the others’ faces. I admit, though, that the romance reader in me wanted a bit more of a honeymoon between Feyi and the man she chose before the shit hit the fan.
Something I loved was the sensuousness of the writing—the descriptions of the lush outdoors, the light, Feyi’s art, Alim’s house, and the sublime food that Alim made for his guests. In one dinner scene dessert was “a banana cream parfait with coconut shortbread alongside broiled pineapple with macadamia toffee, drizzled with rum caramel.” I was salivating. There’s also a scene involving mango-flavored whipped cream that was sexy, seductive and startling.
The beginning of the book did feel slow, and I think perhaps the blurb was a factor in this. Since the triangle was mentioned there, I got impatient for it to get off the ground, and Alim did not come into the story until 33% in.
Overall I liked this book, and I think readers who are drawn to Women’s Fiction might like it even more. For me it’s a B-.
Goodness. I’m tempted to read just to see how the author fit so much into 284 pages.
(the link goes to a book entitled Love Radio)
@LML: The book never felt overstuffed to me, or like it had kitchen sink plotting. All that and more (there was also stuff about the development of Feyi’s career as an artist that I didn’t go into) was juggled really well. Generally speaking, the first third was where more of the eventfulness was.
@LML: I flipped the dates of two reviews of mine on the calendar (the one of Love Radio runs early next week) and forgot to change the URLs–apologies for that. I see they’re now what they should be, so someone else must have fixed them.
@LML: Actually I was wrong, you must have meant the Amazon link. That is now fixed too though.
I liked this slightly better than you did – my grade is maybe a B or B+ but I agree with your comments. I’m glad that I’d read a couple GR reviews ahead of time that made it clear that it’s not a typical genre romance and that the main LI didn’t show up for awhile, so I went in with expectations adjusted.
There were so many things that I liked about it that it kind of carried me through the fact that the romance seemed understated. This was one of the best fictional portrayals of a visual artist that I’ve read in a long time and I really liked that.
I agree with you about Nasir – his comments about his dad seemed like a red flag to me – and I also agree about Milan. I loved how he came through for Feyi at the end. Honestly, I think some of my favorite parts were the conversations Feyi had at the end of the book – with Milan and with Nasir. I liked how messy everything was and also how both Alim and Feyi tried to deal with the mess they made honestly and as kindly as possible. I also wanted to see more of a honeymoon period or just more about how they interact as a couple outside the bubble of Alim’s home and that visit.
@cleo: I’m so glad you enjoyed this book too.
I agree with you re. how good the portrayal of a visual artist was. Friends of my parents are and someone else I know is too, so I had some sense of that and appreciated it also. The only book I can think of that was even stronger in this regard was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Niffenegger is a visual artist herself.
And yes re wanting to see how they are together outside their bubble. Partly to see their continued adjustment and the relationship working out, but also because income disparity might be an issue and it would be interesting to see how they got around that. But that could be a novella in itself so I can see why Emezi ended it where they did.
@cleo: I forgot to add–I think my grade would be close to yours had I known to expect a mainstream/WF novel with romantic elements rather than a romance genre romance.
@Janine: I was thinking of The Time Traveler’s Wife too! I also think that Charles DeLint writes artists and musicians very well, although I haven’t read him in years.
@cleo: I have never read DeLint—I think I tried something many years ago and his writing style didn’t appeal to me but I don’t recall why.
@Janine: I discovered him in the early 90s, when he was starting to write in what would become the genre of urban fantasy. He’s written in a lot of different styles but I always liked his UF best. He was one of my favorite authors for at least a decade, probably longer – I loved his Newford series and his early UFs set in Ottawa. I don’t think I actually broke up with him as an author, just slowly drifted away.