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On Beauty Hardcover – September 13, 2005
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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 Howards 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. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Truly human, fully ourselves, beautiful," muses a character in Smith's third novel, an intrepid attempt to explore the sad stuff of adult life, 21st century–style: adultery, identity crises and emotional suffocation, interracial and intraracial global conflicts and religious zealotry. Like Smith's smash debut, White Teeth (2000), this work gathers narrative steam from the clash between two radically different families, with a plot that explicitly parallels Howards End. A failed romance between the evangelical son of the messy, liberal Belseys;Howard is Anglo-WASP and Kiki African-American;and the gorgeous daughter of the staid, conservative, Anglo-Caribbean Kipps leads to a soulful, transatlantic understanding between the families' matriarchs, Kiki and Carlene, even as their respective husbands, the art professors Howard and Monty, amass matériel for the culture wars at a fictional Massachusetts university. Meanwhile, Howard and Kiki must deal with Howard's extramarital affair, as their other son, Levi, moves from religion to politics. Everyone theorizes about art, and everyone searches for connections, sexual and otherwise. A very simple but very funny joke;that Howard, a Rembrandt scholar, hates Rembrandt;allows Smith to discourse majestically on some of the master's finest paintings. The articulate portrait of daughter Zora depicts the struggle to incorporate intellectual values into action. The elaborate Forster homage, as well as a too-neat alignment between characters, concerns and foils, threaten Smith's insightful probing of what makes life complicated (and beautiful), but those insights eventually add up. "There is such a shelter in each other," Carlene tells Kiki; it's a take on Forster's "Only Connect;," but one that finds new substance here.
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I think the author may be confused about what states in the U.S. are part of the Deep South (versus Southern), but that was very easy to overlook.
I recommend this book to anyone who will be sensitive to the author's blending of cross-cultural relationships, academic pretension and the vivid, consuming woman at the center of the novel. She is both fictional and real.
Philosophically "On Beauty" leaves much to be desired as well. Is Mozart or Keats more beautiful than hip-hop, and if so, why? Is beauty physical, e.g., the 20-year-old temptress Victoria Kipps, or is it found rather in a breadth of humanity, e.g., the 250-pound matron and pie-giver Kiki Belsey? Does deconstructing a text or a painting reveal its beauty or kill it? Is art life? Does anyone care?
The pacing is uneven, the book has a bloated feel, the prose is often Edwardian, there are riffs (such as Howard's visit with his estranged father) that lead nowhere, characters disappear without a trace, the end is unilluminating. On the other hand, the publisher overstocked by half. The resulting price is more than right.
In "On Beauty", there is still that sprinkling of ethnic and cultural details, strong and minute, but they are more often neither necessary nor effective. It seems that taking all the ethnic, gender, and cultural aspects from this novel will not subtract much from it. The wit is still there, the cartoonish portrayals of certain archetypes and stereotypes are still there, but they are disconnected from the storyline. I have not read the original inspiration of this story, so perhaps I am missing something here, but if I hadn't read "White Teeth" I will still have written the same about "On Beauty".
If you have read "White Teeth" and really enjoyed it, then "On Beauty" is worth the price of admission. If you have not read "White Teeth" and know Zadie Smith only from book reviews and interviews, I will only hesitatingly recommend this book. Perhaps it is Smith's familiarity with the British way of life that makes "White Teeth" appear to be a more integral and effortless piece of writing, but both aspects are lacking in this latest novel.