Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

This novel by Zadie Smith tackles many different issues. The Belsey family is at the center of the novel. Howard, the dad, was born and raised in England and is now a professor at a liberal arts college near Boston. Smith gets the college atmosphere just right. An example is this excerpt where Howard is starting off the beginning of the year: “ ‘Any questions?’ asked Howard. The answer to this never changed. Silence. But it was an interesting breed of silence particular to upscale liberal arts colleges. It was not silent because nobody had anything to say – quite the opposite. You could feel it, Howard could feel it, millions of things to say brewing in this room, so strong sometimes that they seemed to shoot from the students telepathically and bounce off the furniture.”

Howard’s wife, Kiki, is black and they live in a house near Boston that her grandmother inherited. They have three children, two of whom are in college and one is in high school. Their lives become entangled with the Kipps family. The Kipps’ family lives in England and Howard and the father, Monty, have an ongoing academic feud. Smith accurately portrays the anguish and importance attached to a few words in a paper: “ Three months on they clanged, they stung, and sometimes they even seemed to have an actual weight- the thought of them made Howard’s shoulders roll forward and down as if someone had snuck up behind and laden him with a backpack filled with stones.” The Belsey’s oldest son, Jerome, becomes briefly entangled with Victoria Kipps while in London, and then everyone’s life becomes even more complicated when Monty Kipps is invited to be a visiting lecturer at the same small college as Howard.

Smith’s descriptions of place throughout the book are very expressive. Here she describes the weather in England: “ It is drizzly, and the wind will blow; hail happens, and there is a breed of Tuesday in January in which time creeps and no light comes and the air is full of water and nobody really loves anybody, but still a decent jumper and a waxen jacket lined with wool is sufficient for every weather England’s got to give.”

There is a lot more to the book than I can go into here, but the diversity of the characters and, for example, how the Belseys deal with their mixed marriage and its troubles or how their youngest son, Levi, is trying to find his way as a relatively privileged young black man are all treated in detail. The daughters in the story, Zora Belsey and Victoria Kipps, are intriguing, but not particularly likable and it is somewhat hard to empathize with them. They both end up in Howard’s class to complicate matters. The wives, Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps, have an surprising relationship, especially considering the differing sides their husbands take in most matters politically and on campus.

The most interesting parts of the book for me are the academic descriptions of life at a small college. In some ways this novel reminds me of Straight Man by Richard Russo, which is one of my favorite books. Both books are set at small colleges, are pretty humorous at times, and well worth reading.

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