"On Beauty," Zadie Smith

Sunday, June 09, 2013


So when I was still in high school, I heard about this wonderful amazing innovative book called "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith. As soon as my local library had the book in stock, I rushed there and picked up a copy. I borrowed it again and again, without ever finishing it.

Fast forward to June 2007. I'm in Los Angeles, spending days alone a block from the Venice Beach boardwalk, doing pretty much nothing. One day I decided to pop into the only bookstore along the boardwalk, Small World Books, and splurge on one book. (I'm not in the habit of purchasing books unless I really love them or they serve some sort of reference purpose.) I'd heard some talk in the months leading up to June 2007 about Zadie Smith's new book, "On Beauty." Without giving it too much thought, I handed over $15 and walked across Ocean Front Walk to the beach, found myself a medium-sized palm tree to lean against, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading.

A couple of weeks later, I spent over 8 hours at LAX awaiting my flight, and I read and read and read there. I read more while waiting to board my connection flight in Baltimore. And yet, I never finished the book. I even picked it up again and read from the beginning about a year later, but never made it past the three-quarters mark.

Well, I finally did it! And to be perfectly honest, the story of how I procured the novel is probably more interesting than the novel itself, or what I have to say about the novel. "On Beauty" is a story about a liberal arts college's fine arts professor and his family, their struggles, his professional struggles, and his general struggle with middle age. It's set in a upper middle class college town just outside of Boston, one that is said to be some sort of Cambridge (Harvard)-Wellesley hybrid. The characters are all very vivid in their own ways, though I'm not sure that they are so vivid as to be three-dimensional and believable. Many of the characters -- the main character, in particular -- do things that just don't make sense (perhaps all the while driven by various forms of "beauty") and their actions are never explained or the characters never punished for what they've done.

In many ways, I think that many of the characters in "On Beauty" may have been pulled from real life for Zadie Smith. For one, an emcee named Doc Brown makes an appearance at a restaurant-cum-club ... and whaddya know? Zadie Smith's brother's (stage) name is Doc Brown. She has yet another brother who has become a professional rapper, named Luke (the youngest son in the novel, Levi, pursues a similar route). The father in "On Beauty" (Howard Belsey) is a white Englishman and the mother (Kiki Belsey) is an African-American woman from Florida. Smith was born to a white Englishman father (Harvey Smith) and a Jamaican mother (Yvonne Bailey). The only daughter is named Zora. Smith had a one-year residency at Harvard University.

Write what you know? I think I'm grasping at straws here, but I also don't think that Zadie Smith made it very difficult for the reader to jump these conclusions, with any knowledge of her background. Many other readers who have also read "Howard's End" say that "On Beauty" is an homage to the E.M. Forster novel. I haven't read "Howard's End," but now I'm thinking I should in order to appreciate what Zadie Smith was really getting at.

The novel has its moments. It's poignant in parts, comical in others ... and sometimes even entertaining. It also, perhaps, contains interesting commentary on American academic life. But overall, "On Beauty" is too crowded with characters and too messy to make much of an impact.

Have you read the book? What did you think of it? Did I completely miss the point? My next book to finish in my "Book Challenge 2013" will probably be "Angels in America" ...

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