On Beauty, Zadie Smith, The Penguin Press, 2005, 443 pp
This was a hot book last year; my mom even read it. I had a good time reading it but had mixed feelings when I was finished.
The setting is academia, which is a whole little world of it own. The theme seems to be midlife crisis with a cross-cultural flavor. Howard Belsey is an art professor at Wellington, a New England college. He is originally from a lower-class English family , but has been an intellectual for so long that he has almost buried his roots. His wife, Kiki, is an African-American woman from a lower-class Florida family, but she inherited a small mansion in Wellington and has been married to Howard for 3o years, which has almost buried her roots. They have three children of highschool and college age who are representative of 21st century young people from mixed parents.
The antagonist is Monty Kipps, another academician of Trinidadian descent who lives in England, is very right wing and opposes every view that Howard has. Monty's wife appears to be the devoted and spiritual wife.
Of course, nothing is what it seems. One of the Belsey kids falls in love with the Kipps' daughter. Then the Kipps family arrives in Wellington, where Monty will be a visiting professor. Kiki and Mrs Kipps become friends. Now everyone's true colors begin to show and through a series of interconnected events plenty of tragedy and comedy ensue. Sex, campus politics, social class conflict, etc. Love is what they all seek but also what they lose. So what else is new?
Perhaps a few too many issues are being explored. Perhaps the comedy and tragedy don't mix well. But I think there is simply a missing depth of feeling, of understanding for the real human failings beneath it all. My favorite character is Kiki, who has many layers. The others are caricatures beside her. The author's point of view is very young, similar to one of the teens in the story. She has a good eye for detail and a razor sharp wit and has achieved enough fame that she can keep writing and find the depth and compassion that comes with growing up. That she could create Kiki gives me hope.