After reading a flurry of enjoyable romance novels, I was ready for something a little different, so I went back to my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 and picked up On Beauty (2005) by Zadie Smith. This is my first time reading Zadie Smith, and I was very impressed. She wrote an engrossing book with memorable characters. She plays a lot with issues of identity, race, class, and academia, but I always felt that the characters came first. I will definitely be reading more books by Zadie Smith.
According to Wikipedia, On Beauty, is a loose homage to Howard’s End. Not knowing the story of Howard’s End, I did not make that connection myself. But it is about two families: Howard Belsey is a white Englishman who teaches art history at an exclusive liberal arts college in the fictional town of Wellington, Massachusetts. “Wellington: an unreal protectorate; high income, morally complacent, full of spiritually inert hypocrites.” He is married to Kiki, a black, American woman, and the two have three children. Their eldest, Jerome, has become a born-again Christian, much to the consternation of his atheist father. Their second child, Zora, is a smart, young woman who has just finished her First Year at the school where her father is a professor. The baby of the family is Levi, still in high school, and eager to break away from the rich, white, liberal town of his childhood.
The book begins with e-mails from Jerome to his father. Jerome has gone to England for an internship with Monty Kipps for the summer. Jerome is a student at Brown University. Unfortunately, Monty Kipps is something of an academic adversary of Howard Belsey. Monty Kipps is also conservative and Christian. He advocates against affirmative action and basically stands for everything that Howard abhors. Needless to say, Howard, is not pleased with his son’s decision to work for his rival. It gets worse when Jerome gushes in his e-mails about the wonderful home and family he’s found with Monty Kipps. And the final straw is when Jerome writes that he and Monty Kipps’ daughter, Victoria, are engaged to be married. This setup leads to a scene that is both cringeworthy and hilarious when revelations and confrontations occur at the Kipps family dinner table.
After the inauspicious start between the two families, nine months later, Monty Kipps moves his family to New England so he can be a visiting professor at the same school as Howard. He even moves down the street from the Belseys. Kipps, originally from Trinidad, brings his wife, Carlene, and his daughter, Victoria, with him. His older son, Michael, stays in London while Victoria enrolls at the college. Jerome does his best to avoid Victoria while Kiki and Carlene become unexpected friends.
When the Belsey family attends a Mozart concert in the park, Levi and Zora befriend Carl, a young man with significantly fewer advantages than the children of the Englishman professor. Both very handsome and incredibly talented with music and poetry, they are both intrigued by him. “[A]nd all these people be trying to prove that it’s Mozart ‘cos that fits in with their idea of who can and who can’t make music like this.”
With this cast and setting, Smith explores a vast number of relationships and issues. First, Howard and Kiki are struggling because Kiki has just discovered that Howard had an affair, and she is trying to figure out if she can forgive him. She is described as a very large, black woman, who has gained considerable weight since she was married. She seems pretty comfortable in her own body, but her husband does throw it in her face when defending himself after his affair is exposed. In addition, Kiki watches Zora struggle to find herself in her own body. “This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust.”
Howard pretends to be a progressive liberal, but he turns Karl away from his home after Levi invites him to his father’s party. Howard does not approve that Karl is young, black, and not dressed in the way that young, elite college students would dress when visiting a professor’s home. In addition, Kiki is often uncomfortable as a large, black woman in the small, white town of Wellington. However, there are still significant class differences between Kiki and some of the Haitian refugees that have recently come to the area. Monty Kipps is something of a raging hypocrite. ***SPOILER***He sleeps with a woman from his church while at the same time trying to kick her out of a poetry class at the college because she is not an enrolled student. ***END SPOILER***
There is so much going on, that it would be impossible for me to describe or delve into the meaning of much of this book. However, the unifying theme that I found throughout the book was the dissonance between what people think of themselves, what other people think of them, and what they actually are. Most of the times, this dissonance made me grit my teeth and quite often it’s sad or honestly painful to read. Howard is obvious. He sees himself as a distinguished professor, but he’s tired of his unchanging, annual lectures, he doesn’t pay attention to the students who really care, he cannot finish his book, and he is just as close-minded as his nemesis Monty Kipps. One of the most painful characters for me was Zora. She is desperate to gain attention and success and it is screamingly obvious to everyone around her that she’s trying too hard. Her outfits are often awkward and unflattering because she’s trying to be sexy or quirky and it’s just not working. It seemed that the more strongly people associated themselves with an idea, instead of caring about love and truth, the more the hypocrisy abounded.
This book was definitely a pleasant surprise for me. I had no idea what to expect when I picked it up, but it was funny, emotional, and engaging. I read it a couple of months ago now, and the story and characters have stuck with me to a surprising extent.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.