Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: On Beauty

I didn't read E.M. Forster’s Howards End, a novel about the relationships between different social classes during turn of the (20th) century England, before opening Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, an homage to and riff on Forster's work. But I quickly realized you don't have to catch all the parallels between the two works to appreciate On Beauty, an elegant and funny satire about two academic families – the Belsey and Kipps clans – and their tragic affairs.

Published in 2005, On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year, and while it seems to be Smith's debut novel, White Teeth, that endures in popularity, On Beauty is a much more confident effort. Set in Wellington, a fictional suburb of Boston, On Beauty concerns art history professor Howard Belsey, a white Englishman married to Kiki, an African-American nurse and the novel's moral center. The couple lives with their three children, newly-religious Jerome, overachiever Zora, and Levi, a high school student striving to break free of the constraints of the liberal elite and develop street cred.

Their counterparts are the outspoken and reactive Kipps family, headed by art history professor and cultural critic Monty Kipps, a black Englishman by way of the Caribbean. Kipps' unusual wife Carlene and beautiful daughter Victoria develop relationships with members of the Belsey family, creating both inter- and intrafamilial strife.

Beginning with an ill-fated affair between Jerome and Victoria, which sets off a chain reaction of relationships and wished-for relationships between all the main characters, On Beauty is an examination of love and lust — and equally, between the demise of love and lust — glossed over with a satirical sheen. The affairs here aren't passionate or fulfilling, since each affair compensates for something missing in the lives of its participants and often destroys stable relationships with others in the process; the affairs themselves are fleeting, their impacts are not. By focusing on the internal effects of the collapse of Kiki and Howard's 30-year marriage, Smith rightly grants more weight to, essentially, the only acceptable pairing (I can't spoil who actually gets together) in the whole novel.

Beyond the plethora of romantic and sexual relationships depicted here, Smith engages in a minor study of race, partly through the character of Carl, a boy from a neighboring town and an aspiring rapper/poet, the object of desire for many of the main characters, and partly through the mixed race Belsey children, who wonder the extent to which their race defines them.

Smith has a lot to say on these topics, and much of it is great. My problem with On Beauty is that it's simply too long — my copy ran 464 pages — and many scenes could do with a bit of streamlining. Despite that, On Beauty is a reminder that Smith is one of the great novelists of our time.

1 comment:

  1. My friend has been on my case to read this for, I think, two years. I really enjoyed White Teeth and everything I've read from Zadie Smith has been charming, but I just haven't gotten to On Beauty yet-- but hopefully now I will. Great review.