Review of ON BEAUTY
By Zadie Smith
Reviewed by Bonny Finberg
I’ve been thinking about reincarnation and Zadie Smith— wondering if the tremendous insight and breadth of her vision are the result of many lives lived. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become by the simpler idea that she experiences and processes what she sees and hears more deeply and quickly than most people do. There is always the sense of play as she gives us an unobstructed view of those things that transcend gender, class, and race—that is, most things at the core of being—delivered with immense humor and compassion for all concerned. The narrative occurs naturally out of the various intersections between these people, taking place in this Present World that we all wake up to and sleep as reprieve from, whatever Them or Us we belong to.
Let’s start with Howard Belsey: an opinionated, hubristic type who knows what’s right, and insists that others take heed, while he fights various losing battles between his sexual boredom and his last stabs (no pun intended) at fading lust, not to mention his interminably “soon to be published” treatise on how Rembrandt has been overrated. He is an Englishman who teaches art history at a prestigious New England University through the lens of his left leaning politics, loves his African American wife, Kiki, and has raised three children, now teenagers, who have variously grown into Belsey-adherents or rebels, depending on their gender and age. Zora is her daddy’s girl, passionately aspiring to academic accomplishment and intellectual vigor. Jerome, being the oldest son, also follows his father’s intellectual path into academia, though he veers into forbidden territory, having gone on holiday to London, where he is staying with the family of Howard’s right wing nemesis, Monty Kipps. Howard and Monty are engaged in an ongoing academic feud about what constitutes Good vs. Bad Art. Easily acclimated into the Kipps milieu, Jerome finds himself in love with Victoria, the luscious Kipps daughter. This becomes further complicated by developments that would qualify as bordering on the surreal. Levi Belsey, 15 years old, is in the throes of teendom, and intent on hiding the fact that he lives in a privileged college town with the privileges afforded the family of a respected academic in a respected American University. He, rather, talks the talk and walks the walk of young Black men 250 miles away in New York City (none of the Belseys can figure out how he learned to talk like that) wears a head stocking, writes Rap lyrics, and gets involved with some African “Brothers,” street vendors, selling pirated DVD’s, CD’s and designer bag knockoffs. Howard and Kiki are both recuperating, at least trying to, from the crisis of Kiki’s discovery that Howard had a one-night stand.
All the people but one in this novel have some physical flaw that puts their beauty into question, compensated for by some other virtue like wisdom, wit, talent or youth. This is most prominently true for Kiki Belsey, who at 54 has gained considerable weight since the time when she and Howard were young lovers brought together by sex and radical politics. Forthright, wise and emanating a beauty and style of her own, she tries to accept these changes gracefully, particularly challenging in the face of Howard’s own slip from grace. Howard’s attempts at damage control, on the other hand, are poignantly transparent, awkward, and familiar.
Kiki and Howard, on a family outing, stand in line for a concert in the park, with their three children:
Kiki began to giggle. Now Howard let go of Zora and held his wife instead, gripping her from behind. His arms could not go entirely around her, but still they walked in this manner down the small hill towards the gates of the park. This was one of the little ways in which he said sorry. They were meant to add up each day.
- Kiki, cautiously inching closer to forgiveness in the glow of a milestone anniversary and its requisite party, is further cast down the rabbit hole. Howard continues to try to “get out of this one,” stumbling, and yielding to temptation with the sad weakness of the 1950’s sitcom husband: Stupid Loveable Louse.
- Though in truth, no one in this novel comes across as a stereotype, quite the opposite, and no one is actually stupid. They only act stupid, often against their own best interests, and some more than others. The smartest choices and observations generally fall to the women. That brings us to the one exception in this book of flawed beauty. Victoria Kipps, possibly named after the lingerie line of the same name, is the ideal centerfold masturbation fantasy and she plays this (most hilariously during a sex scene) to the max. This eponymous Victoria has quite a few secrets of her own. While her characterological flaws mar her physical perfection, all the other paunch-bellied, ass-sagging, bespectacled, prominent-fore headed, awkward teen-aged humans are trying to do the right thing, even if imperfectly, with good intentions and relative humility.
- The Belseys and their friends and foes are people that one could easily know, or at least might have come into contact with. You don’t know how this will all come out until the last page, and even then, just as in life, there is still room for another turn of events, another slip up, a change of mind. It’s not over till it’s over and so, at its end, after you’ve closed the book and these fictional intimates are silenced, you may find yourself wishing for a sequel, or even a trilogy.