Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005. Summary
: Art History professor and expatriate Englishman Howard Belsey is aging gracelessly, having foolish affairs with colleagues and students that threaten his thirty-year marriage with an American black woman. To make matters worse, he's feuding with a reactionary black public intellectual named Monty Kipps. Meanwhile, his biracial children confront the complicated intersections of race and class. Comments
: I've resisted reading the work of Zadie Smith for years. Yeah, yeah, I know she's become a darling of the literary fiction bookmunches, not to mention a prizewinner, but I've always been deeply skeptical in principle of any literary wunderkind--especially conveniently photogenic ones. The very best contemporary novels I've read since college have consistently been written by people middle-aged or older. Something about life well-lived and all that that enriches prose. As such, ambitious books by the younger set inevitably disappoint me.
And sure enough. While admittedly funny in places, On Beauty
is ghastly overrated as far as I'm concerned. Of course, as this is the author's third novel, she is now past the point of writing strictly what she knows. Unfortunately, she doesn't back her forays into new terrain (namely that of a New England college town outside Boston) with believable, well-researched details about, say, the weather (trees bare in September, snow drifts by November...?!) and the organizational structure of a liberal arts college (which she persists in calling a "university" when not referring to it by proper name). Worst of all, though...she doesn't even bother to devise her own plot! It's just an updated version of E. M. Forster's late-Victorian classic Howard's End
, albeit without nearly as much redemption at the end. (If it tracked its inspiration exactly, Howard's wife Kiki would be end up married to Monty.) Notes
: trade paperback, 1st UK edition, 18th printing Rating
- Sure, it was a reasonably entertaining, stress-free read. But it lacked originality or profundity. Zadie Smith is definitely not the UK's answer to Toni Morrison. Sorry.