Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Beauty

On Beauty  by Zadie Smith

Howard Belsey is an art professor at Wellington College in Boston. His marriage is in flux, although he's trying to win back his wife, Kiki. Howard is British, Kiki is African American. They have three children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. They've been married almost 30 years and were doing fine until Howard Cheated. Smith never really gives a reason for Howard's infidelity. He obviously loves his wife and family. Unless, of course, there is no reason and that is the point.  I'm not a big fan of infidelity and here it was probably fairly realistic, which makes it even more unpalatable.  

The book does have a real feel to it, despite it's parallels and comparisons to Howards End. There's a lot of stuff going on, but it's a pretty slow moving story. You've got growing pains and infidelity and love and loss and broken hearts. Here is a family in a constant state of change, pushing forward while trying to cling to the past. Howard and Kiki's marriage is on really thin ice. Jerome has gotten his heart broken and embarrassed himself in front of the family of his father's nemesis. Zora is a student and a pretty opinionated and mouthy one at the university where he father teaches, where his nemesis is visitng and where everyone knows everyone else's business. It's really not the ideal path to finding your way as a young adult. Levi, the youngest is an upper middle class boy feeling disconnected from "his roots."  He's not mature enough to grasp when he's being led astray. He begins making his first adult decisions and learning about injustice in the world, but he personifies the cliche that no good deed goes unpunished. True, his deeds aren't so good, but he gets so wrapped up in the plight of the Haitians, that he doesn't realize when he crosses the line from champion to felon.

The story is beautifully written and the characters are rich and multi-faceted.  I didn't just like reading about them, I actually wanted to know them. I wanted them to show me around Boston. I wanted to have tea, or join their study groups, or take their classes.  In the long run, I think I felt a little left out when Smith glossed over all that she was building up to in the narrative.

For a modern story, I expected all these plot lines with so much explosive power to amount to more than the quiet little splash they all made. Even Howards End got a little exciting with Miss Schlegel's pregnancy and the subsequent death by bookcase squashing of her married paramour and the ensuing inquest.  In On Beauty everything comes to a head, but the ready is never privvy to any of that.  We come back in as whoever is left in the narrative picks through the rubble from whatever explosions and shake ups the characters endured.  I would have liked to share in the climax, not just be told it happened as part of the denouement.  Wow! That sounds like I needed it to be an action story, which isn't really what I mean.  I followed the characters and they got themselves into some big fixes. It's one thing when you leave a plot thread untied and ambiguous after the story ends, but it's another to tie up all the threads and only present the reader with the bow.

1 comment:

Judy Krueger said...

This was the first book I read by Zadie Smith and I could not figure out what all the fuss was about concerning her. I didn't read her again for years. Then I read White Teeth and NW and WOW, now I get it. I guess she was trying something with On Beauty but I couldn't tell you what.