Finding the Beauty in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

On BeautyWhen you examine the cover of the Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, it becomes clear that this is an important book – one that will be canonized along with works by contemporary writers like Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, and taught in college English classes for years to come. It’s identified as a New York Times bestseller and one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 best books of the year. It also received the prestigious Orange Prize for fiction. If those accolades aren’t enough to convince you, opening the cover reveals even more: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and selected as one of the best books of the year by numerous publications.

The reason I’ve spent so much time describing what are essentially superficial features of the text is that I believe they strongly influence how we view the book itself. I had heard quite a bit about Zadie Smith before I decided to read On Beauty, and I approached it with numerous expectations, even though I hardly knew anything about the plot. All the awards and accolades told me that this was a book I was not only supposed to read, but also supposed to enjoy. I felt that if I didn’t like it, the problem would lie with me, not the book itself. I was well-acquainted with this type of pressure, to recognize and respect certain texts (thanks graduate school!), and it made me a bit anxious, to be honest.

On Beauty was different than I had expected. It begins in media res, so to speak, and there are quite a few main characters to keep track of. There are two families: the Belseys, who live in America, and the Kippses, who live in England. Howard Belsey is a white English man who teaches Art History at a fictional liberal arts college named Wellington, located in a town outside of Boston, MA of the same name. He and his wife Kiki, who is African-American, have three children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Monty Kipps is a black Trinidadian who lives in England with his wife Carlene and their two children, Michael and Victoria. Howard and Monty have a long-standing rivalry based on scholarly, religious, and political disagreements. Howard is an atheist and a liberal, and Monty is Christian and conservative. Both men impose their beliefs and values on their families, and expect their wives and children to share their views. However, it doesn’t quite work out this way. In fact, the animosity between the two men seems to propel their families closer together. Jerome becomes interested in Christianity and secures an internship at Monty’s office in England. When the Kippses move to Wellington because Monty secures a visiting professor position at the College, Kiki and Carlene flout their husbands’ wishes and become friends. These families become inextricably intertwined, in a subtle and complex way that does not become entirely clear until the end of the novel.

I struggled to get into the book at first. I kept waiting for something dramatic to happen; for that moment where you get “hooked” and can’t seem to put the book down. I finally realized that slow pace is due to Smith’s careful and methodical development of each character – we see the world through Howard’s eyes, Kiki’s, Levi’s, Zora’s, etc. and this allows us to understand how they view each other and the particular issues each one is struggling with. Carl, the character I find most intriguing, is a relative outsider who doesn’t belong to either family, but becomes caught up in the battle between them.

The intricate groundwork laid by Smith in the first part of the novel allows the reader to understand how the Belseys manage to be related, and yet not really know each other at all. They routinely keep secrets from each other (the same is true of the Kippses), and struggle to communicate about the most basic of matters. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, I began to see how all the different threads Smith had been weaving connected, and that was when I understood its brilliance. I could see why it had garnered awards and praise. And I couldn’t put it down. I needed to understand how everything would turn out because, despite their many flaws, I cared deeply about each of the characters.

Smith does not shy away from depicting the faults of her characters; at turns, they can be selfish, ignorant, racist, and manipulative. They regularly say the wrong thing, make mistakes, lie, and take advantage of others. But they are also incredibly vulnerable, because Smith exposes their deepest, darkest, most shameful secrets. She also exposes the uglier aspects of academia: the painful process of securing tenure, the conflicting views on the role diversity should play in admissions, and the subtle ways in which institutions can make those from disadvantaged backgrounds feel as though they do not belong.

I mentioned before that I felt anxious at the prospect of reading this novel, and the same can be said for writing the recommendation. In her acknowledgements, Smith describes On Beauty as homage to Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. I haven’t read Howard’s End, and I’m sure that I missed a number of references and allusions. The connection to Forster is usually the first thing reviewers mention when discussing the book. But, I don’t think you need to have read Howard’s End to enjoy On Beauty. Nor do I think that you need to have experience with academia (as a student, professor, or administrator) to understand the issues of class, race, politics, and education raised by the novel. At its core, this is a novel about family, identity, and the ways in which our experiences bind us to one another. As Kiki observes near the end of the book, “the greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.”

Maria Sclafani is a writer, teacher, tutor, and freelance editor living in Colorado. She shares her home with a cat who is constantly upstaging her on instagram. She received her first library card when she was 10 and hasn’t looked back since.  You can find her on twitter @misssclafani

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