Zadie Smith's ambitious first novel, WHITE TEETH, sent its young author into the stratosphere of literary culture, earning her rave reviews with critics and readers alike. Although her second novel, THE AUTOGRAPH MAN, received mixed reviews, Smith's intellect and creativity have firmly established her as an author to watch. Now, with her third novel, ON BEAUTY, Smith returns to her fine form as a gifted storyteller and astute cultural critic.
ON BEAUTY focuses on two families that couldn't be more different. Howard Belsey is a white Englishman, an art historian on the verge of obscurity, teaching at Wellington, a fictional prestigious university in New England. His African-American wife, Kiki, is larger than life in more ways than one. A big woman with a taste for bright clothes and a passion for food, Kiki struggles to comprehend why Howard had an affair with a woman who appears to be Kiki's polar opposite. Their children --- Jerome, Zora and Levi --- are each brilliant in their own way, eager to define themselves apart from their parents and as part of some culture, whether religious, academic, or "street."
On the other side of the coin (and the pond) are the Kippses. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps (a so-called public intellectual) have bickered via the pages of academic journals for years. Kipps, a black Englishman, has the fame and respect (and book deals) Howard has never achieved, even though his conservative politics couldn't be more removed from Howard's liberal sensitivities. When Howard's son Jerome, bitter over his father's infidelities and eager to explore evangelical Christianity, accepts an internship with Kipps and then carries on an ill-fated love affair with Kipps's daughter Victoria, a more personal connection between the two families arises, a connection that grows only stronger (to Howard's chagrin) when Kipps accepts a visiting professorship at Wellington. Forced into close proximity, Kiki Belsey begins a surprisingly intense friendship with Monty's sickly, stay-at-home wife Carlene.
ON BEAUTY is a broad, sometimes messy novel, full of ideas and unafraid to tackle subjects both lofty and earthy. The novel's title is reminiscent of a scholarly treatise, and indeed, Smith does touch on aesthetic theories both directly --- in numerous discussions of Rembrandt paintings and in other contexts --- and indirectly. Her female characters are brilliant and accomplished but still loathe their own bodies. Her male characters argue articulately about politics and art but still remain in thrall to their own desires. The "mommy wars," rap music, campus politics, love --- Smith tackles them all with her characteristic wisdom and humor. Along the way, she adroitly references pop culture high and low, including Alice in Wonderland, Outkast, and practically everything in between.
Like Smith's earlier novels, ON BEAUTY is ambitious and bold in its storytelling. This time, Smith's book is a homage to E. M. Forster's masterpiece HOWARDS END. That is not to say that readers unfamiliar with Forster's novel can't enjoy ON BEAUTY; when read in tandem, though, Smith's novel gains even more richness, as it adds dimensions of race and gender to Forster's ideas about class and human connections.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 13, 2011