I am very grateful to Cannonballer Mathildehoeg for sending me On Beauty as part of the holiday book exchange. I’ve been wanting to read more of Zadie Smith’s work since reviewing White Teeth a couple of Cannonballs ago. Everything about Smith’s work is so superbly done, so sublime, that I feel ridiculous trying to review it. I’m no writer and have no aspirations to be a writer; I am a grateful reader who simply doesn’t have the words or facility of expression to do justice to this novel. But here goes!
On Beauty is the story of the Belsey family of Wellington, MA, a college town outside of Boston. Howard is a 57-year-old British ex-pat and untenured art history professor with controversial views on Rembrandt. His African American wife Kiki is a nurse and a force of nature, capable of deep and powerful love but she has her limits and can open a can of whoopass as needed. Kiki may not be an “intellectual,” but she comes across as the most intelligent member of the family, showing an emotional intelligence that her husband and children frequently lack. The Belsey children — Jerome, Zora and Levi — are young adults struggling to find identity and make their own paths in life. When the story begins, Jerome is in London on an internship and living with the Monty Kipps family. Kipps is Howard’s academic nemesis, a black conservative who believes that
…Equality was a myth, and Multiculturalism a fatuous dream… that Art was a gift from God, blessing only a handful of masters, and most Literature merely a veil for poorly reasoned left-wing ideologies.
Monty has also published a wildly popular book on the genius Rembrandt, while Howard still struggles with his manuscript on Rembrandt as an unoriginal conformist. Jerome, under the influence of the Kippses, has embraced both Christianity (to the dismay of the Belseys) and the lovely Victoria Kipps, an affair which ends badly. When Monty Kipps is invited to Wellington College as a visiting professor, he moves his family there and the showdown for competing ideologies begins. Howard leads a movement to try to censor Kipps’ lectures due to their offensive and hateful rhetoric, and in his efforts he is aided by his daughter Zora, a sophomore at Wellington known for being a complete grind. Zora strives to be an intellectual and never backs down from a fight. She, like her mother, is a force to be reckoned with, but as Kiki notes, “Poor Zora — she lived through footnotes.” She is, in fact, quite insecure about what she knows, but throws herself into activism on behalf of “discretionary” students, who are not officially enrolled at Wellington but are allowed by individual professors to attend lectures. In particular, she campaigns for rapper/street poet Carl, who plays a pivotal role in the plot.
As you might guess, much of the action takes place at the university, but through 15-year-old Levi, the reader encounters a very different world — outside academia, among Haitian, Dominican and Angolan immigrants who make a living hawking handbags and bootleg DVDs on the streets of Boston. Levi is uncomfortable in Wellington, where a young man of color is usually assumed to be a danger, and he has no aspirations for college. Having been around higher education and professors all his life, he concludes that
In universities, people forget how to live. Even in the middle of a music library, they had forgotten what music was.
Levi wishes he were from Roxbury, that he were “street,” and as he throws his lot in with the street vendors, he learns a little about Haiti and becomes something of an activist. Levi’s heart is in the right place, but his actions will cause trouble.
My favorite character, though, is Kiki. She befriends Monty Kipps’ wife Carlene, and it’s through these two women that we see what is beautiful. They are very different from each other socially and politically. Carlene has some rather old fashioned ideas about men and women and their roles in society. But she and Kiki don’t argue; they find what they have in common and enjoy that. They represent the openness and broadmindedness that one might expect to find at the college. Howard is puzzled by his wife’s friendship with Carlene and enraged to see Kiki attending a Monty Kipps lecture. His stubbornness and marital infidelities push the limits of Kiki’s ability to forgive, particularly when it seems that Howard is disappointed in Kiki’s 50-something body showing its age.
Smith employs humor, wit and considerable intellectual powers to weave together her plot lines. Along the way, we get some art commentary, a skewering of academics and academia, insight into class division and race, and, of course, a sense of how beauty, genius and love can appear. In the final scene of the novel, as Howard is giving his Rembrandt presentation, we witness an amazing epiphany, an expression of both beauty and of love.
This novel is powerful and successful on every level: in the development of plot lines and their intersection; in the reality, depth and humanity of the characters; and in the interweaving of relevant, complex themes into the overall story, which itself is just so very engaging. No surprise that On Beauty was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and won the Orange Prize. It’s sure to be one of my favorites for CBR7.