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Thoughts on Zadie Smith's On Beauty [Nov. 12th, 2005|08:38 pm]
Literary Fiction Lovers


I have a confession to make. I've read other E.M. Forster novels, but not "Howard's End," on which "On Beauty" is based. Though I imagine that the original must be quite different from this retelling of a story about two academic families with opposing ideological interests, finding their lives intertwined. The fact that one family consists of an interracial couple and the other family is black must account for much of this difference.

This novel is astonishing for its astute observations about the operation of race in America, in England, in academic communities, even though I didn't find its depiction of the academy quite as satisfying. It is told primarily from the perspective of members of the Belsey family: Howard the British father, Kiki the Floridian mother, and their children Jerome (a Christian in an atheist household), Zora, and Levi. Each of these characters have their own unique perspective on how race affects their lives, and I consider this the best parts of the novel. Zadie depicts the pressures and conflicting messages that black men deal with, for instance, with uncanny insight.

Howard teaches as a Rembrandt scholar at a small college outside of Boston called Wellington, and his nemesis, the arch-conservative Montague Kipps, has arrived to the campus to visit for a year, bringing with her his wife Carlene, who develops a friendship with Kiki that their husbands object to, and his daughter Victoria, a hottie who isn't as innocent as her Daddy thinks she is. The interactions between the Kipps and the Belseys lead to much drama that serves as the container in which important insights into race, gender, and politics are served.

I'm not sure if any author can manage to be both this erudite and this in touch, and for that alone this book is well worth reading. But it's also worth mentioning that the book takes reductive academic potshots, against postmodern ideas in particular, which is a common tack for authors who bemoan the rise of theory in academia, but may not necessarily be familiar enough with theory to make their dismissals convincing. Smith is also not necessarily the most adept at cleaning up her plot points and character motivations. As a result, I tend to feel that the whole novel is less than the sum of its parts. But the parts are so good that to say this feels like nitpicking. And who wants to pick nits out of something so beautiful?