On second reading, Zadie Smith’s acerbic third novel, On Beauty, fails to make any real emotional impact.
Essentially the story of two feuding families in the rarefied atmosphere of academia and a (fictional) New England university just outside Boston, On Beauty is contrived and predictable, populated with a host of generally unlikeable characters.
Set in London, Smith’s first book, White Teeth, was full of life – street-wise sass, larger-than-life characters, snappy dialogue. To some extent she has attempted to replicate the sass and savvy with the Belsey family – and in 52 year-old Kiki (wife and mother), an African-American woman from Florida and “a solid two hundred and fifty pounds [with a] beautiful tough girl face”, Smith has succeeded.
But sadly Kiki operates in a vacuum. Husband Howard is an untenured lecturer and art historian at Wellington College, a stereotypical liberal, shambolic academic. He may love his wife and three teenage kids (in his own way), but he is out of touch with the world around him and unable to communicate effectively with family, colleagues or students. A recently revealed (albeit short-lived) affair has certainly strained the usually rambling and boisterous Belsey family home.
The news that Monty Kipps, a black conservative professor and Howard’s nemesis as both art historian and humanitarian, has been offered a secondment at Wellington sends the Belseys into a tailspin. Howard, due to a lack of focus and commitment, has repeatedly failed to deliver his book on Rembrandt. An arrogant and foppish Monty has recently had published his own book on Rembrandt to critical acclaim.
Characters come and go throughout On Beauty. Howard fails to prevent Monty moving to Wellington – and to cap it all, the Kipps family move into a house not so far from the Belseys. Against the grain, Kiki becomes friends with Carlene Kipps – although this relationship is more than a little strained. Lonely and rarely in the company of her husband, Carlene is something of an ‘academia widow’ as far as Kiki is concerned. But Carlene has her own secret she choses not to share with family or friends. Her oddness and vagueness is later revealed when the secret proves to be a terminal cancer.
So much for the adults (throw into the mix various academic peers – the beatnik female poet, Claire; Erskine – Head of Black Studies and Howard’s best friend; the tiresome and longwinded Dean).
On the teenage front, Zora Belsey is precociously and arrogantly academic, an opinionated activist admired rather than liked by her peers and teachers at Wellington. She is very much ‘her father’s daughter.’ Jerome, the eldest Belsey child, is sensitive and intelligent, choosing to study at Brown University rather than stay at home. Much to the dismay of his parents, Jerome has recently found God and the Church. Levi is the odd child out – the youngest with an aversion to study but an interest in Rap, Hip-Hop and ‘street’. A chance encounter results in him becoming involved in the Haitian cause.
In the Kipps family home remains only 18 year-old Victoria (her brother Michael choses to stay in London). She is sexually active and uses her beauty to her advantage, especially as a new student at Wellington.
All characters meet and clash – Zora’s relationship with Victoria mirrors that of their fathers; Monty is suspicious of Kiki’s motives towards Carlene. Both Howard and Jerome have encounters with Victoria.
But there’s just too much ‘chance’ or ‘serendipity’ in On Beauty. The Kipps and the Belseys both ‘happen’ to be in London at the same time to enable them all to attend a funeral: Levi ‘happens’ to become interested in the Haitian cause just as the Kippses arrive in Wellington – both Monty and Carlene are from Haiti. External student Chantelle, intern to Monty, ‘happens’ to work part-time at the same record megastore as Levi. It’s all a little too convenient, structured to enable the episodic narrative to progress.
Yet, in spite of the negativity towards On Beauty, there were a number of high points – and the last few pages, the culmination of all that had gone before them, were as good as anything Smith has written (at least in the other books of hers I have read). The title ‘On Beauty’ comes from a poem – Smith comments, throughout, on different perceptions of beauty. Skin deep comes to mind as, throughout, the hypocrisy of opinion and action becomes more and more prevalent. The two patriarchs are (predictably) proven to be the biggest hypocrites. But they are certainly not the only ones.
All the characters are struggling beneath the weight of personal expectations placed upon them. Added to which Smith explores the dynamics of race and gender in contemporary America through what is essentially a domestic drama against the backdrop of academia. But On Beauty feels as if Smith is also struggling under that weight – the critical disappointment to her sophomore novel, The Autograph Man, after the raves bestowed on White Teeth.
Interestingly, On Beauty was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (it lost out to the execrable The Sea by John Banville) – an achievement that outstripped the multi-award winning White Teeth in 2000.