As I begin reading Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth (2000), I realize that I have not yet posted about reading her book On Beauty (2005). For some reason, when I opened it, I expected some sort of feminist critique of media and advertising. I thought it was nonfiction. To my surprise (and delight) it is a novel. And a very good one at that. (I guess I didn’t read the front cover very closely.)
It is about an aging, white, British professor married to an aging, black, American woman. They have children who are old enough to start college and who are finishing high school. They are just beginning to find a way back into each other’s good graces after an affair.
Yet, such reconciliation is not to be. Professor Howard Belsey is no longer cheating, but when his wife Kiki finds out who it was (another professor whom he works with and sees every day) she is angry. The two continue to fight, and Howard cannot find a way to be forgiven. His character is written so richly (warts and all) that I sympathize with his wife. He is sort of a scumbag.
Amid all of this is the visit of another professor, Monty Kipps, with whom first Howard has a rivalry. And to add to the rivalry, Howard’s oldest son Jerome announces that he is in love with Monty’s daughter Victoria. The two professors, at the same college, must learn to tolerate each other. These tensions build up between the families, and when Kiki makes friends with Mrs. Kipps over pie, Howard feels betrayed.
Who wouldn’t make a new friend over pie?
The novel also gives insights into the lives of their children. Their son Levi was raised in privilege, but he pretends to be a hardcore rapper and street guy. He is posing. Juxtaposed with him is a truly talented musician and rhymemaker who did grew up poor and has raw talent. The daughter Zora has a crush on this up-and-coming musician and is able to get him a position at her father’s university to study poetry. However, this charity doesn’t turn out well or as expected.
While all of this is the surface-level of the narrative, deeper down themes of race, class, privilege, education, and entitlement play out. The brilliance of the novel is that Smith doesn’t discuss these overtly. What good novelist ever does? These themes protrude from her narrative, through the lives of the characters, and through the reader’s own awareness of just how unfair, mixed up, and niggling so many of these ideas are as they emerge through the characters. Novels like these remind us that there are real people behind politics, public policy, private conflicts, university endowments, and perceptions of what skin color means.
I will have to read this…I read her book NW in which she does discuss race, class, privilege, etc. overtly, yet still within a novel.
Interesting. I would like to see that!
The only book by Smith I’ve read is NW, much more gritty, which I didn’t really enjoy, but I understand that On Beauty and White Teeth are her best. I guess I should give her another try.
You know, I didn’t end up being able to get through White Teeth.
Hmmm, maybe I should just try On Beauty then. I finished NW, but I didn’t really like it.
I’ve heard so much about Zadie Smith and I know her writing is acclaimed, but I’ve never actually read any of her novels. Your post made me want to read On Beauty — another title to add to my TBR list! 😃 I’m currently reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which I’m enjoying a lot.
I loved The Shadow of the Wind. What a fun book!
I’m sad to say that I’ve never read Zadie Smith, but I keep seeing positive reviews of this one, so I’ll have to move it up the list! (Although I feel like I say this about every other book!)
I know, right? There are so many that I want to move to the top!
I also had the impression this book was non-fiction. I wonder why? Well, it’s even more appealing to me now!
What a pretty cover.
Maybe The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf? I think that’s what I was thinking the first time I saw it…
That could be!
Yeah, I think you are right, Cecilia. It just seemed like another in that same genre.
I didn’t get through White Teeth either, but I’ve been interested in this one. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I will put this on my TR list!
I’m glad I am not the only one!
As much reading as I do, you would think I would have read at least one book by Zadie Smith! I’ve got to “get with the program” – as they say.
Ha ha! I guess you do!