by Zadie Smith
In an author’s note at the end of On Beauty, Zadie Smith writes: “My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could.” If it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Forster, perched on a cloud somewhere, should be all puffed up with pride. His disciple has taken Howard’s End , that marvelous tale of class difference, and upped the ante by adding race, politics, and gender. The end result is a story for the 21st century, told with a perfect ear for everything: gangsta street talk; academic posturing, both British and American; down-home black Floridian straight talk; and sassy, profane kids, both black and white.
Howard Belsey is a middle-class white liberal Englishman teaching abroad at Wellington, a thinly disguised version of one of the Ivies. He is a Rembrandt scholar who can’t finish his book and a recent adulterer whose marriage is now on the slippery slope to disaster. His wife, Kiki, a black Floridian, is a warm, generous, competent wife, mother, and medical worker. Their children are Jerome, disgusted by his father’s behavior; Zora, Wellington sophomore firebrand feminist; and Levi, eager to be taken for a “homey,” complete with baggy pants, hoodies and the ever-present iPod. This family has no secrets–at least not for long. They talk about everything, appropriate to the occasion or not. And, there is plenty to talk about.
The other half of the story is that of the Kipps family: Monty, stiff, wealthy ultra-conservative vocal Christian and Rembrandt scholar, whose book has been published. His wife, Carlene, is always slightly out of focus, and that’s the way she wants it. She wafts over all proceedings, never really connecting with anyone. That seems to be endemic in the Kipps household. Son Michael is a bit of a Monty clone and daughter Victoria is not at all what Daddy thinks she is. Indeed, Forster’s advice, “Only connect,” is lost on this group.
The two academics have long been rivals, detesting each other’s politics and disagreeing about Rembrandt. They are thrown into further conflict when Jerome leaves Wellington to get away from the discovery of his father’s affair, lands on the Kipps’ doorstep, falls for Victoria and mistakes what he has going with her for love. Howard makes it worse by trying to fix it. Then, Kipps is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington and the whole family arrives in Massachusetts.
From this raw material, Smith has fashioned a superb book, her best to date. She has interwoven class, race, and gender and taken everyone prisoner. Her even-handed renditions of liberal and/or conservative mouthings are insightful, often hilarious, and damning to all. She has a great time exposing everyone’s clay feet. This author is a young woman cynical beyond her years, and we are all richer for it.
I wish I had enjoyed his book as much as I enjoyed “White Teeth“, but sadly “On Beauty” won’t be getting the same rave reviews from me. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it, but for a 400+ page book, I wish it had given me more.
The story follows the Belsey’s, an genuine and honest interracial family living in New England, their lives and the events surrounding them. For me, the plot was a little lacking. Slow and sometimes drawn out, I found myself getting easily distracted while reading; more interested in the world around me than those I was reading about. I found the plot tedious at points and unrealistic at others. It seemed far too convenient that university professor Howard Belsey and his academic arch nemesis were in the same part of England at the same time, how their wives became good friends when they moved round the corner and how the family just happen to bump into spoken word poet Carl on numerous occasions.
But despite all of this, it was enjoyable. Well written, descriptive and emotive, I really felt as though I was a fly on the wall, watching the family’s day to day lives. From the details of Zora’s unattractive outfits to the thought process of teenage Levi, every detail was described as though watching a home video. Battling issues of politics, sex, identity and morality, Smith writes in such a descriptive style that I felt like I was one of the family, or at least a close friend.
Addressing the issues and worries of a mid-life crisis, adultery, teenage angst and the culture war between conservative Christians and secular liberals, Smith is able to show contempt for every point of view, exposing hypocrisy, deception and dishonesty from all sides. I really enjoy the style of Smith’s writing. True to its name “On Beauty” delves into our perceptions of beauty and the differences in what we perceive to be beautiful. We see Kiki, a large black woman without an education or academic background but the presence of a goddess. She’s married to Howard; white, middle aged and average looking. Their daughter Zora would not be described as beautiful, but what she lacks in natural beauty and common sense, she makes up for with effort and preparation, dedicating hours to getting ready in the morning and attempting to lose weight. Looked up to by Zora is professor Claire Malcolm; a thin, white woman with no interest in makeup but a life long habit of ordering salad to stay thin. Each of the characters Smith describes provides a broad range of personalities, emotions and idiosyncrasies to the plot, yet the large number of them made it feel like we never truly got to know them in depth which for some is a disappointment.
Overall rating: A great character study but for such a long book I was looking for more of a story. Well written and enjoyable but too lengthy and a little lacking. It’s 3 stars for “On Beauty.”
See my other reviews of books by Zadie Smith here: