Zadie Smith: On Beauty
I had mixed feelings about this book. While I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading it, it definitely lacked something I couldn’t put my finger on. I mean, in the beginning, I got the impression that the message would be deeper, or maybe more compelling, but having made it to the half, it kind of started to fall off. Not that it became less enjoyable, just more predictable and less enlightening. On Beauty describes the lives and loves of a racially and culturally mixed family of five, the Belseys, set in a highly prestigious (also fictional) university, Wellington: a middle-aged English professor married to a beautiful black woman who is less academic and more politically engaged, their two teenage sons and daughter. Their story goes in parallel with that of another family, the Kipps. The fathers of both families seem to have waged an intellectual warfare over ideology, art, religion, in other words, the very foundations of their beings. Things seem to fall out of place in the Belsey household when the father’s affair with a long-time best friend is uncovered, leading to a turmoil in the once-established and maintained equilibrium under his roof. Through the tumultuous relationships and interactions of the Belseys, Smith digs deep into many dualisms: black/white, intellectual/spiritual, mystical/academical, poetic/methodical, classical music/rap, etc, with a most-welcome sense of humor and day-to-day observations. She also strides to look into many racial and social issues, taking a particular interest into the Haitian immigrants, black identity, racial discrimination, affirmative action, etc. What disappointed me though is how obvious every facet is represented in each character of the book, thus creating predictable dilemmas and confrontations. I did appreciate though the rhythm and the prose, which led to a rather enjoyable reading, not necessarily evoking an ultimate revealing message. I’m usually a big fan of the themes treated by Smith, but I believe she could have dug deeper into psychological layers or worked more on the plot which lacked cohesion at many times. It all seemed fine until I reached the end, which unraveled into a teenage soap-opera, diverging from the seriousness of the intellectual world that Smith tried hard to inject into her book.
I think what Smith is trying to say is that beauty has many faces and many races, it knows no color nor religion, it represents all that is strong and vulnerable, ferocious and tender. The book definitely had a sentimental value, at least for me, a kind reminder of human connection. Although it left me wanting more, I am set on moving on to Smith’s first and more famous book, White Teeth. I definitely see some potential here.