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~生まれた町で夢見てきた...~
"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
On Beauty by Zadie Smith 
23rd-Jan-2008 11:59 pm
bookpile01
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: 5.5/10 - 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.
Comments 
24th-Jan-2008 09:32 pm (UTC)
That's a shame, I really enjoyed 'White Teeth', which I studied at Uni, but, of course, that's a book about things she's familiar with. Maybe she was advised to use 'University' because 'College' in England is where you go from age 16-18, but that seems a little odd, since I don't know any English people who don't know that 0_o;
The weather thing sounds bizarre. Maybe she totally mis-researched it? That's not what the weather is like in England, so it's not just a case of writing the wrong country's weather without thinking...weird.
24th-Jan-2008 10:02 pm (UTC)
Maybe she was advised to use 'University' because 'College' in England is where you go from age 16-18, but that seems a little odd, since I don't know any English people who don't know that 0_o;

That's not how it works in the US, which is where she set the story, and since it was supposed to be from the POV of Americans... Hence my gripe. *sighs*

There were so many little details that weren't right, from little turns of phrase in the characters' speech to questionable facts about the region. It wasn't transporting for someone who's actually lived in New England, and I don't think the book was good enough on its own merits that it didn't need to be.
24th-Jan-2008 11:10 pm (UTC)
That's what I meant. We all KNOW that Americans call what we call Uni 'college', hence I'm not sure why she chose to write 'University'. There's a possibility she was advised for the sake of British readers, but there'd be little point in doing that.

I can relate to how it totally pulls you out of a story. It's like that live action film of 101 Dalmations from the 90s, it's meant to be set in England, but you see shots of woodland creatures and there's a bloody raccoon there! Would it really have been so hard for them to discover that raccoons don't live in England?
I guess that's why research is so important.
25th-Jan-2008 12:00 am (UTC)
We all KNOW that Americans call what we call Uni 'college', hence I'm not sure why she chose to write 'University'.

Or just "school," arguably just as common if not more so. (I never realized until this past year that using the word "school" to refer to all levels of study at a university, including doctoral programs, is an Americanism. ^^; )

I guess that's why research is so important.

Cautionary tales to all aspiring storytellers, most definitely. ^_~
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