Thursday, April 19, 2007

On Beauty

Since I started this blog, I've posted about a few truly awful books, and a lot of mediocre ones. The good ones, it seems, are rarer and rarer, but when they come along, they're truly worth the wait.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith has been my constant companion for the last few days. It served as a brief respite in the middle of two very hectic days, welcomed me home after 12-hour days and long drives, and gave me a break from cleaning when I was snowed in on Monday. I came, regretfully, to the end of it last night. It was an enjoyable and moving read, and I highly recommend it to all of you.

The book is a tale of two families, negatives of one another. The primary characters are the Belseys. Howard Belsey is a British expat and Rembrandt scholar; his wife of 30 years, Kiki, is an African-American hospital administrator. They have three children: Jerome (who, despite the family's agnosticism, is a devoted Christian); Zora, a budding intellectual, and Levi, still a teenager. Howard's archrival in the academic world is Monty Kipps, the head of the other family. He is an arch-conservative, anti-affirmative action, black British Rembrandt scholar who has been feuding with Howard through letters and articles for over a year when the story opens. His wife, Carlene, is the negative of Kiki: frail and reserved (as opposed to Kiki's vitality and warmth) and a stay-at-home mom. Jerome's opposite on the Kipps side is Michael, a brash, hardnosed financial analyst (although Jerome's field of study is never stated, we get the impression that he leans towards the humanities like the rest of the family). Zora's opposite is Victoria Kipps, also extremely bright, but beautiful and seductive.

Levi has no opposite, but doesn't need one. Levi is straddling two worlds in this story. His family values education and upward mobility. Early on, Smith traces Kiki's family history: her female ancestors were all nurses, all impoverished, until her great-grandmother was left a fabulous house by a wealthy and grateful patient. Jerome and Zora are both carrying on the family traditions of academic achievement and self-improvement. Levi is not interested in school. Failing an alternative, and wanting to get in touch with the "black" side of his roots, he gets deeply involved in the hip-hop scene and in the world of Haitian immigrants. He quits his job at Virgin Records (it's not named, but may as well be) and sells CDs on the street.

Smith is black, and her other books have strong undercurrents of race and identity, but she manages to write about these serious themes in engaging and humorous ways. She also makes her books about much, much more than that. Kiki and Howard are suffering marital problems in the wake of an affair Howard had with a colleague. Howard's midlife crisis continues throughout the novel, compounded by career-related difficulties (not the least of which involves Monty Kipps, who gets a lectureship at Howard's college). Jerome did an internship with Monty Kipps and had a brief affair with Victoria, which ended in disaster when he proposed. And the portrayal of Zora, a young woman who is utterly confident in her intellect, yet deeply unsure of herself, is beautifully wrought. Swirling around it all, sometimes on the perimeter and sometimes in the forefront, is the art that these two men have chosen to make their life's work.

Race, subjugation, the nature of beauty, the narrowing of life in one's later years, and the harrowing, bustling confusion of trying to figure it all out as a newly minted adult -- it's all here. On Beauty will challenge you, make you think, make you laugh, and make you regret the book's ending, as I did.

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