Tessa: I just finished reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Usually before I post a review or comments about a book I go on line and read a few other reviews. Both Salon.com as well as The Observer wrote lengthy and glowing reviews so I’ll refrain from doing the same here. Needless to say this comes as no surprise as the book was both the winner of the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006 as well as shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005.
The book has been hailed as a brilliant homage to EM Forster’s Howard’s End for it’s study of contemporary upper class academic culture with all of its foibles and pretensions. Set mainly in New England but also in London On Beauty traverses the ups and downs of two long feuding families the Belsies and the Kipses.
Howard Belsey, ostensibly the lead character in the novel, is a British professor at a New England liberal arts college. His area of specialty is the deconstruction of the myth of Rembrandt’s genuis, an area if study that has made little impact on anyone outside his immediate circle. He is married to a wonderful black american woman called Kiki with whom he has three children.
His nemesis is Dr. Montague Kipps, a black conservative academic of caribbean descent who has earned his stripes in the British op-ed pages by writing against affirmative action, and seeks to deliver a series of lectures called Taking the Liberal Out of Liberal Arts.
Neither of these characters are particularly inpiring but what they do is serve as a cultural representation of two spectrums of contemporary, cultural and social thought. To that end the book does get you thinking about the issues and ideas related to this. For example, in a free country where freedom of speech is hailed do liberals in the interests of guarding against anti-hate have the right to curtail this very right.
Howard’s and Monte’s posturing on these topics as well as the nature in beauty in art leaves you wondering who cares? Really who does care about whether Rembrandt is hailed as a genious or decried as far less? And in the post September 11 landscape and the ensueing illegal war in Iraq and the almost constant nonsense that hails from the White House and more, who truly gives a crap?
So I guess that’s why it took me so long to read. Who cares about these people? As a measure for where we are culturally in our hallowed ‘educated’ communities I think Smith does a brilliant job of penning a very good satire.
The character that did touch me in the book was Kiki, Howard’s wife. She was from Wellington but not of Wellington which I actually read somewhere else but it rings true. She is not like anyone else there including her own shallow husband. A large black woman, her kind of smarts hails from within and has much more to do with life knowledge and empathy than with book learning. I liked her and thought she was the story’s redeeming character.
For all of the reasons listed above I think the book is a good quick read but my next selection won’t be about deconstructing the dreadful, full of hot air ‘upper classes’.