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Monday, February 02, 2009

On Beauty

On Beauty On Beauty by Zadie Smith

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I loved White Teeth immensely, until I hit the rather overly-coincidental and melodramatic ending, and I think I feel the same way about On Beauty, which tackles the same themes (race, gender, identity, family and love) across the pond here in the US of A. Smith wrote this novel while she (and I at the same time, but I was prolly too stoned to even attempt to take her class or go to her readings) were studying at a certain elite Northeastern fancypants U. I found her satire of life at that place scarily accurate in some ways, but also shallow in others, sometimes in the same spot. For example:

"Any questions?" asked Howard. The answer to this never changed. Silence. But it was an interesting breed of silence particular to upscale liberal arts colleges. It was not silent because nobody had anything to say--quite the opposite. You could feel it, Howard could feel it, millions of things to say brewing in this room, sometimes sometimes that they seemed to shoot from the students telepathically and bounce off the furniture. Kids looked down at the table top, or out of the window, or at Howard with great longing; some of the weaker ones blushed and pretended to take notes. But not one of them would speak. They had an intense fear of their peers. And, more than that, of Howard himself. "

Her understanding of the ubiquitous torture of those Ivy-League silences is good. But what do they mean? Is it pure fear? Well, for those of us who've sat in those silences, yes and no. I wish, to use a silly academic term, she would unpack the silences.

 Anyway back to the novel's more human, less satirical aspects...

The characters Smith was able to probe into the most were Howard and Kiki Belsey, the struggling interracial couple, the anchors of one of the two families Smith explores. Both Belseys had irritating and sympathetic qualities (though Kiki was obviously more sympathetic) but I wish that Smith used her talents to delve deeper, rather than wider. The Dickensian pastiche is all very well, but as I said in my review of Little Dorrit, it works better when you truly care about a main character or two--and Kiki and Howard could have been those characters but there was a certain coldness to their rendering. Smith is masterful in a lot of respects and on Beauty definitely worth reading if you care about modern takes on any of the Big Themes I mentioned above. On Beauty zips by more than it stagnates. Smith's prose is funny and absorbing and not too much of a downer, although you do want to smack her characters on the head at times.

(Lastly, I think on a surface level Smith did a brilliant job capturing the everyday tragedy of late adolescent life--all five or six of her late-teen early twenties characters were well drawn and perhaps their idiocy and stubbornness and foolish idealism and delusions hit too close to home for this 26 year old reader:))

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