Zadie Smith made a literary splash as a twenty-five-year-old with her debut novel White Teeth. Five years and two novels later, Smith has all but solidified herself a spot among the modern literary canon as one of a handful of truly important young novelists at work today.
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.
The patriarch of the family, Howard Belsey, a prominent art critic and favorite-son professor at Wellington College, is the catalyst for most of the drama that engulfs the family. As the novel opens, a sheen of professional disgrace and personal embarrassment hovers over the household as it has recently been discovered that Howard partook in a short-lived relationship with a fellow professor and family friend, Claire Malcolm. Smith writes only briefly about the affair itself, but the ramifications of the two-week fling engulf the novel-particularly in Howard and his wife Kiki's disintegrating marriage.
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.
Smith has filled On Beauty, possibly too much so, with complicated relationships between the Kippses and Belseys. Subplots involving Howard and Monty, Jerome and Victoria, Kiki and Carlene Kipps (Monty's wife), and lastly Howard and Victoria crowd the novel and occasionally redirect attention away from the most interesting among them, particularly the blossoming friendship between the two mothers, which is the most drawing, but, unfortunately, the least fleshed out as Carlene's character is never quite brought to full light.
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.
It is odd, then, that the youngest characters sometimes feel the least convincing. Particularly Levi, the Besley's high-school-age son. Levi, unlike his siblings, shuns his father's academic prowess, preferring more "teenage" things like girls and rap music, and rejects his family's affluence, equating blackness with being "street," something his parents surely are not. Unfortunately Levi only comes out as a partial character in the novel, and a late interest in radical politics (sparked by his introduction to Boston's Haitian immigrant community) never feels quite believable.
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.