I read On Beauty in many places over the course of the last two weeks: at home in bed in Los Angeles, on two JetBlue flights, in Syracuse after an emergency landing, in Central Park, at various Brooklyn coffee shops, and at the corner table at my work where I try to take my lunch break far away from everyone else. It’d be easier to count the amount of people who haven’t told me to read something by Zadie Smith, but after consulting a close and knowledgable friend, it was decided that this novel would be the best place to start.
It centers on a family – a white, English father & a black mother – and their children. The father, Howard Belsey, is a liberal college professor who can’t seem to keep his dick in his pants and his tired and overweight wife, Kiki Belsey, has just about had it. One of the most interesting parts of this story was seeing how each child interpreted and embraced their blackness. One of the sons allies himself with street vendors and pretends to be from the hood, protesting with local Haitians and adopting a totally new vernacular and way of dressing. One son is a Christian (much to his father’s dismay) and their daughter, Zora, follows in her father’s intellectual footsteps. There is a second prominent family featured in much of the book which serves as a sort of foil to the Belseys. The head of this second household is Monty Kipps (arguably the villain of the novel) and most known for being an outspoken black conservative. On Beauty chronicles the intersections of these two families, and eloquently dives into the touchy subjects of race, education, sex, and class.
After 450 pages, I was left with a feeling of sadness because most of the characters were not better off than when the book started. Kiki and Howard’s marriage has continued to disintegrate (although she makes an appearance in the last few pages and it seems like things will be okay), one of their children has committed a crime and is bound to punishment, there’s been a tragic death, and everyone seems to be in a state of disillusionment, anger, and depression. There were times when I pitied Howard, and other times when I hated him. At different points, I sided with Kiki, or with their son Jerome, and even with some of Monty Kipps’ children. In the last few pages, Kiki tells the reader that the greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free. Lines like that are what I was really drawn to. What was so great about this book was that it chronicled both the beauty and the shitiness of human life (as cliché as that may sound) in a very pure and honest way. Plus, it did so through the lens of a black intellectual female, who I’m sure has been faced with some of the identity conflicts in the novel. Perhaps that’s why she’s able to describe the touchiness of culture wars so well.