Smith's latest is On Beauty, a modern twist on E. M. Forster's Howard's End, updated to the still-stiff-collared world of twenty-first-century ivy-league academia. A smart, complicated, and often funny look at race, class, and intellectualism, On Beauty centers around the well-to-do (financially, at least) multiracial Belsey family, a stalwart among the prestigious community of Wellington, the fictional Massachusetts town in which the novel mainly takes place.
But Howard is certainly not the only Belsey with problems. Smith opens her novel with a series of e-mails written from eldest son Jerome to Howard describing a love affair he's having with Victoria Kipps, the daughter of Howard's archrival, the conservative art critic Monty Kipps. Jerome has his heart broken by Victoria, forcing him to leave his studies abroad to return home to Wellington safety, all but dropping out of the story entirely as Smith turns gears to focus on the other Belseys and their personal relationships with the Kipps clan, who arrive in Wellington on the wings of Monty's guest professorship at the university.
While On Beauty may not be a perfect novel, it is filled with so many entertaining and poignant vignettes that Smith's ability as a novelist is always clear. Her characters are alive, and their actions, with few exceptions, totally realistic. It's an accomplishment that Zadie Smith, at her young age, can get inside the head of Kiki and express her self-doubt as an aging, overweight, mother, often lost in the shadows of her overbearing intellectual husband. That at twenty-five, Smith can effectively and acutely describe the deteriorating relationship of a couple married longer than she has been alive is not to be underestimated and speaks remarkably of her range as a novelist.
While possibly a bit overcrowded with characters and subplots, On Beauty is an intelligent look at personal politics-racial, social, economic-and their effect on families. That she has chosen a wealthy family of mixed race to show these makes these politics even more complicated. Smith not only pulls it off, but does so while creating memorable characters, as real as the people next door.