BookBrowse Reviews On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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On Beauty

by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith X
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2006, 464 pages

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A brilliant, and dryly funny, analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people's deceptions. Novel

From the book jacket: Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

Comment: What a wise and wonderful novel On Beauty is.  On opening it I wondered what possible interest I could find in reading a novel of middle-class angst set in a liberal arts college, but how wrong I was.  Smith deliciously skewers the insularities and hypocrisies of academia while exploring family, race and morality primarily through the lives of the Belseys, consisting of African-American Kiki, a well-endowed  force of nature; determinedly liberal Howard, a force of mind, who has spent his entire career deconstructing art - and thus, inevitably, has lost sight of its inherent beauty; and their three children all in search of their own identities - Jerome who, much to the disgust of his father, has found Jesus, and worse still, conservatism; Levi, the youngest, who is searching for his authentic self and is convinced he's not going to find it in the middle-class predominantly white suburbs of Wellington; and Zora, obsessively driven to achieve academic success at whatever cost.  Crammed into this melee are a whole host of other characters, including Haitian immigrants, hip-hop poets, East-coast intellectuals, and most predominantly the Kipps family, led by Howard's bitter rival, the West Indian ultra-conservative, and obnoxiously self-righteous, Monty Kipps.

The Belsey children's identity struggles could be seen as a result of their mixed race heritage, but Smith puts pay to that simplistic approach in the interview at BookBrowse in which she explains that "The Belsey children don't struggle to find an identity because they're mixed race, they struggle because they are "of Modernity," and the product of a twentieth century that invented and patented this piece of claptrap called "finding an identity," and it drives everybody nuts, mixed race or no. The search for an identity is one of the most wholesale phony ideas we've ever been sold. In the twenty-first century it's almost entirely subsumed in its purest form of "brand identity"—for Levi to be "more black" would simply involve the purchasing of items connected with the idea of blackness ..... The Belsey children need to stop worrying about their identity and concern themselves with the people they care about, ideas that matter to them, beliefs they can stand by, tickets they can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful."

What should we expect from Zadie Smith next?  Sadly, it seems we shouldn't expect another book like On Beauty, indeed it might even be sometime before she writes another novel at all.  When asked why she chose to base both the plot and theme of On Beauty of E.M. Forster's Howards End, she replies "Forster represents one of the earliest loves of my reading life and the first intimations I ever had of the power and beauty of this funny, artificial little construction, the novel .... But I actually think the points where On Beauty meets Howards End are the least interesting bits of the book for me. It was simply a way of writing inside a certain genre: the literary update ....  I suppose I still think of myself as an apprentice, and this was the end of one part of my apprenticeship—"learning to write an English novel." I know many people think of me as too slavish to that tradition, but that's because I grew up feeling so far from every tradition; I overcompensated. But now I feel "legitimate" in some way; writing this book helped me feel that. The predictable consequence is that it has freed me up and now I want to be illegitimate. I'll never write a novel so engaged with tradition again, so linear, so—nineteenth century. I finally feel free to do my own thing. This is a long way of saying, working through my Forster habit has got me to a new place."

When asked specifically what she's working on now she says "I was twenty when I started [White Teeth]—I'm thirty now. The practice of writing has defined me utterly; I never got a chance to do anything else with my life ..... there's a lot in On Beauty that is still hamstrung and dutiful to an idea of the novel that I don't really believe in, intellectually. I think when you say it's the most accomplished you mean 'It looks and smells just like a real novel.' But what's the point of that really? This is what I have to figure out in the next ten years. I think the biggest change in me and my writing is the realization that in the end my best work might be nonfiction. I'm writing criticism now and I feel so much more confident and happy about it. It allows me to express my passion, which is really other people's fiction. I find it hard to express anything really personal to me in the fiction: I'm too self-conscious. But maybe that will change."

On Beauty
is one not to miss - but as always, you don't have to take my word for it - instead you can browse a substantial (and I believe exclusive to us at this time) excerpt at BookBrowse.

This review is from the On Beauty. It first ran in the September 6, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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