On Beauty – Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, got a lot of attention from literary critics. Initially, I put it down to the author herself- black, British, young, female- enough said. But the book itself was pretty good, if only for the cultural melting pot that it depicts. Having heard native Bangaloreans complain about immigrants from neighbouring states, it’s interesting to see how her British characters handle the dilution (or enrichment?) of their culture with outside influences. Apart from that, it was kind of long and uneventful and got a 3/5 from me on Goodreads.
On Beauty, though, is a big improvement. It’s set in a small American town near Boston, Wellington, home to a vaguely Ivy League liberal arts university. Howard Belsey is a professor at the college, and is shocked when his academic nemesis, Monty Kipps, joins the faculty. Howard’s openly liberal and atheistic views are challenged by the conservative, Christian Kipps. The book pokes fun at the academic tendency to overanalyze things, be it poetry or art (“You can’t just say you like the tomato!”). It strikes a good balance: it’s occasionally deep and thought provoking, but not at the expense of the storytelling. Like in her previous novel, multi culturalism is a way of life. Howard is British, his wife is African American, and his kids occasionally rebel against their stuffy privileged upbringing. In particular, the youngest son tries to get more in touch with his black roots by befriending Haitian protesters and selling pirated CDs on the street.The Kipps family is Caribbean British, but is far from perfect, as is revealed later.
The fact that there are several parallel stories in the book made it seem like a family sitcom; each person has their own personal drama. Howard has a career crisis and an affair. Kiki, his wife, deals with his betrayal and betrays him in return by forming an arbitrary friendship with Monty Kipps’ wife. Son Jerome is a born again Christian in a family of atheists, and has a lou failure right at the start. Daughter Zora is a slightly annoying (I hate 10 pointers!), overenthusiastic student at Wellington. Add in some drunkenness, a priceless painting, a death, and a sex addict, and you get a fast paced novel that still somehow has time for nostalgic, meaningful moments.
This book apparently makes references to the British classic, Howards End, but I haven’t read it and didn’t feel like I was missing anything. This gets a 4/5, and I will probably try reading other work by Zadie Smith soon.