On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty opens with Jerome Belsey’s e-mails to his father. Jerome is the only religious member of his family, and he has greatly irritated his deeply secular father not only by converting to Christianity, but by accepting a summer internship in London working for his father’s intellectual nemesis, a highly conservative right-wing Trinidadian academic by the name of Monty Kipps. Jerome has a short lived romance with Victoria Kipps, and although the drama that ensues is over quickly, the paths of these two very different families are soon to cross again.

Howard Belsey is an English academic who is working on a book that will supposedly deconstruct Rembrandt. His wife, Kiki, is a strong and assertive African-American woman. Their three children are Levi, Zora and the aforementioned Jerome. Levi is the youngest, a teenager who is searching for his identity. The ambitious Zora plans to follow her father’s footsteps into the academic world, and Jerome is having trouble getting over his heartbreak.

When Monty Kipps is invited to join Wellington, the same New England university where Howard Belsey teaches, the conflict between the two takes over the entire faculty. Meanwhile, Victoria Kipps is taking Howard Belsey’s classes, and Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps become friends.

This plot summary doesn’t even begin to make On Beauty sound as good as it actually is. Oh, how I loved this book. It reminded me of Middlesex in some ways, and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can pay a book. While I was reading it, I found myself thinking that I should read books like this more often. But then again, how many books like this are there? Books this powerful, this intricate, this graceful?

But why did I love it so much, you ask? First of all, I loved it for the superb writing. Zadie Smith's command of language is impressive. She has a wonderful, subtle and intelligent sense of humour. She can make a seemingly simple sentence sneak at you and make you want to cry. And then there's her attention to detail; there's the things she leaves unsaid; there’s the sheer elegance of her prose.

I was going to pick a passage to share here, but if I pick one I’ll have to pick two, and then I’ll find myself picking pick three and four and five, and this post is going to be long enough as it is. Believe me, there are many, many memorable passages in this book.

The second reason why I loved On Beauty so much were the characters. It was the characters that had me hooked from page one. They are complex, fascinating, and quirky, but also human, fallible and very real. They are in some ways typifications, while at the same time defying the very concept of types. Even the ones that aren't exactly likeable are wonderful to read about. One of the reasons why I couldn't put this book down was because I wanted to spend more time in the company of these people. I wanted to see their relationships develop; I wanted to discover their innermost secrets; I wanted to know their fears, ambitions and dreams.

But what, after all, is this book about? It’s about the struggle of conservative and liberal ideas in the academic world (and Zadie Smith doesn’t reduce it to anything as simplistic as “liberals are good and conservatives are bad” or the opposite. If what she says could be reduced to anything at all, it would be to something along the lines of “people are complex in many ways”). It’s about academic life in general in a fictional town near Boston. It’s also about beauty and lust and desire and loss, and self-discovery and marriage and friendship and love. Plus it’s about family, racial tensions and identity, the situation in Haiti, subcultures, music, and painting. To sum it up: it’s about life.

There were certain things in the novel that I particularly loved. The friendship between Kiki Beasley and Carlene Kipps, for starters. These two women become friends despite their differences, despite their husbands’ enmity, despite the drama involving both their families. Carlene believes things that would make any feminist (any sensible person, really) cringe: that while men live for ideas and projects, women live for their families; that it is not fit for a woman to criticize her husband under any circumstances. Kiki’s whole life is based on the opposite principles. And yet these two women simply enjoy each other’s company. When they first meet, Carlene recites to Kiki a line from a poem that she likes: There is such shelter in each other. The scenes in the novel in each the two women are together are very touching scenes.

I also loved the exquisite way the novel describes a thirty year long marriage, the things that hold it together and the things that break it apart. There’s loss, of course, but there’s also tenderness, familiarity and companionship. And, along with these, there’s cruelty and loneliness and pain. The contradictory emotions are so intertwined that they cannot be separated, and all together they form a picture – a picture of a lifetime together (an almost inconceivable amount of time for someone like me, whose life has not yet been thirty years long), brilliantly portrayed in all its beauty and its frailty in the pages of a book.

On Beauty made me laugh as often as it made me think, and almost as often as it made me cry. This was my first experience with Zadie Smith, but, as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s taking all my self-restraint to keep me from ordering White Teeth and The Autograph Man right now. I really look forward to reading more of her work.