On Beauty Is a Novel

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.)

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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.

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