If Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” achieved in redrawing correctly the race relations in London’s mixed race society, in “On Beauty” she has again a achieved in painting American academia in the light but serous sense.
She has give us have a baggy, garrulous account of two contrasting, haplessly interconnected families in an urban setting teeming with ethnic, racial and economic diversity.
This time the city is not Smith’s native London but Boston. The school’s exasperating culture of entitlement, arrogance and raw ambition, as well as a character or two, will be recognizable to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Harvard, where Smith did time as a Radcliffe fellow after “White Teeth” put her on America’s map.
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like Rembrandt, an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor 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.
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?
The ideological battles between Howard and Monty (who in the course of the novel comes to work at Howard’s university) may sound, in this polemical age, like the meat of the matter, but they’re only a foil.
Howard’s marriage to Kiki, an African-American hospital administrator, is the real substance here. After 30-some years of happiness and the raising of three children, now nearly grown, this admirable partnership has begun to falter.
Howard has had a shadowy affair before the book begins, and he will blunder into another with a much younger woman before it ends, but he loves his wife. Kiki, once the possessor of “an extremely neat waist,” has found herself in a 250-pound body that strikes her as “a strange fabulation of the person she believed she was.”
New York Times’ Frank Rich sums Zadie Smith’s effort up. “She brings almost everything you want to the task: humor, brains, objectivity, equanimity, empathy, a pitch-perfect ear for smugness and cant, and then still more humor....
On Beauty is that rare comic novel about the divisive cultural politics of the new century likely to amuse readers on the right as much as those on the left.”