On Beauty, Zadie Smith. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
2005. 443 pp. $15.00. ISBN 0 14 30.3774 9. (Bought for $1 at a used book sale)
Synopsis from Goodreads, NOT my own:
“Howard Belsey is an Englishman abroad, an academic teaching in Wellington, a college town in New England. Married young, thirty years later he is struggling to revive his love for his African American wife Kiki. Meanwhile, his three teenage children— Jerome, Zora and Levi—are each seeking the passions, ideals and commitments that will guide them through their own lives.
“After Howard has a disastrous affair with a colleague, his sensitive older son, Jerome, escapes to England for the holidays. In London he defies everything the Belseys represent when he goes to work for Trinidadian right-wing academic and pundit, Monty Kipps. Taken in by the Kipps family for the summer, Jerome falls for Monty’s beautiful, capricious daughter, Victoria.” But this short-lived romance has long-lasting consequences, drawing these very different families into each other’s lives. As Kiki develops a friendship with Mrs. Kipps, and Howard and Monty do battle on different sides of the culture war, hot-headed Zora brings a handsome young man from the Boston streets into their midst whom she is determined to draw into the fold of the black middle class – but at what price?”
On Beauty, like White Teeth, proves yet again that Zadie Smith possesses a coveted thing we all wish we had: true writing talent. Once again, I found myself “blown away” for lack of a better cliché.
The thing that really makes it a phenomenal novel is the fact that it isn’t about what happens (because nothing really happens). It’s about people. Her characters are multi-dimensional with pasts and problems and bad habits. They make mistakes. They say stupid things. They are the story.
Every one of the characters shares a real inability to connect with one another. They are stuck behind their assumed physical and emotional barriers. And this makes them angry. There’s a connotation of repressed and/or unrealized anger that doesn’t culminate until the end of the novel. By the end, they all suffer a loss of some kind – whether it’s a marriage, an ideal, an experience, or a faith. The intricate character build up comes tumbling down in a lovely emotional thunderstorm in the end. It is excitement of an unusual kind.
The importance of this novel lies in this:
After loss, they are still themselves. After failure, life still moves forward. Ideals are not always what they seem, but that doesn’t change the course of history.
The point of the book, in my opinion, is to show that beauty is not found in the ideals we all seek. Every attempt at perfection cannot succeed. Beauty is found in the real, not the sublime. Zadie Smith isn’t trying to teach us a lesson or preach a creed as some authors do. She’s just presenting a reality; we either see it or we don’t.
I am not-so-patiently awaiting NW, due this fall.
Next up: re-reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.