Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

This is not an easy book to summarize; I’ve been typing and erasing reviews for the past 20 minutes. On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s third novel, but it hardly shows.

The story follows an upper-class family of academics in the fictional New England college town of Wellington. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. Smith explores different issues of personal growth and identity that are relevant to almost anyone through each of the five family members. Howard, a white, English, art professor, slowly alienates everyone in his family with a series of stupid infidelities. Kiki, his black, Floridian wife, asks herself tough questions about what it means to fall in love, to give your life to someone, and how much love can actually overcome. Their three children all deal with growing up and forging their own identities in their respective close-knit communities. One tries to make a name for herself as a liberal intellectual at Wellington College, the oldest breaks away from his parents close-minded liberal ideologies by adopting Christian, conservative values, and the youngest awkwardly tries to come to terms with his racial identity in his upper-class, New England suburb. In dealing with each of these personal challenges, Smith manages to expand the small world of college politics and New England social life into something much more familiar to her readers. In no way is this book limited in its scope.

Her characters, while unique in their professions, racial identities and beliefs, could be anyone. On Beauty is guaranteed to touch on at least one problem that each of its readers has dealt with at some point. Smith explores problems of identity, such as what it means to be white or black, old or young, conservative or liberal.

The older we get the more our kids seem to want us to walk in a very straight line with our arms pinned to our sides, our faces cast with the neutral expression of mannequins, not looking to the left, not looking to the right, and not—please not—waiting for winter. They must find it comforting.

If you can’t relate to what it’s like to grow old or fall out of love, you can almost certainly recognize some of the personal struggles that the younger characters face as they learn more about themselves and what it means to long for someone else. And she writes it all so well that it’s easy to forget that her characters aren’t actually having affairs in a small New England town, or that Smith herself hasn’t experienced all of this. Her prose is sharp and witty, and the way she so effortlessly follows around different characters is very refreshing.

Smith has a very fluid style, and manages to slowly, and naturally, leak out more details of the plot without relying on forced dialogue, so characters aren’t saying things like “remember that time when I did that thing that relates very much to an important plot development we’ll soon face?” The only problem I had was that sometimes she didn’t seem to say much about the issues she brought up. She seemed to point excitedly to the fact that the oldest son was a conservative Christian in a family of liberal atheists, and then just lose interest. Overall, I’d imagine that this book can speak to just about anyone, even though it leaves you to draw perhaps too many of your own conclusions. Plus, the cover is very pretty.

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