On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Not long after I became a librarian, I read Howard’s End. I had seen the movie when I was in high school, but never actually read the book. And what I remembered about the movie was: “I love Emma Thompson.” Because, in case I’ve never expounded upon her greatness: I love Emma Thompson.

So, in my quest to read at least some of the classics, I read Howard’s End, and I enjoyed it, though I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. I did remember enough of the themes, however, that when I heard that On Beauty by Zadie Smith was an homage to Howard’s End set in modern-day America and setting its conflict through race, gender, and religion (especially where religion intersects with political views) instead of class, I was intrigued. It came out in 2005, and around then, I think I either heard Zadie Smith interviewed on NPR or a discussion of her book. Regardless, it’s been on my radar for a while, but I finally decided to dig in.

I enjoyed On Beauty – I won’t say “best,” but a lot – when I could see its Howard’s End parallels. I think “updating” (for lack of a better word – seriously, I struggled with this sentence for much longer than necessary) the story and using it to work through different issues worked well. After doing a little bit of quick Wikipedia-ing, I am reminded that the main theme of Howard’s End is “Only connect . . .” That applies to On Beauty, as well – the relationships the characters make and the lengths to which some of them go to push each other away or deflect actual emotional connection is a huge part of the book, and another part I appreciated very much.

There were other things about it I liked much less – it seemed to set up stories or characters and then drop them without much of a trace. For example, the first part of the story is emails from Jerome to his father. But then . . . we don’t really see Jerome for much of the book. Which is okay, it’s acceptable to use a different perspective to set up the story, but it was done a few other times, enough to make me lament the loss of these interesting characters who just faded into the background. Basically, there were some things I wish had been explored a little more.

I must admit that I was influenced a bit by Slate’s podcast on The Emperor’s Children – one of the reviewers mentioned that Messud did “academia” better than Zadie Smith. I will agree with that reservedly, since they weren’t trying to do the same thing. I am not sure I would have noticed it if not for the podcast. What I will say is that the academics in this book didn’t necessarily seem to have a handle on exactly what they were talking about, but I feel as if that’s somewhat intentional, since our main academic, Howard, is floundering in his career. I wondered if we were supposed to feel that he didn’t have a handle on what he was talking about because, yes, he was in over his head.

Some of the reviews on Amazon talk about how all the characters are basically unlikable. It’s true that many of them are distasteful, but I didn’t find them all unlikable by any means. Especially Kiki, the matriarch of the Belsey family, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Zora, her daughter. Both of these women were characters who resonated with me. I also think that it’s interesting that what made some of the characters unlikable was how they were trying to find themselves, and in an interview I read, Zadie Smith said that what they should be doing, instead, is finding out what they are interested in, and pursuing that. I think that advice resonates most clearly for Zora, who has killer instincts but is remarkably unfocused. It’s also true for Howard, who seems incapable (probably because of academia) of knowing what he likes and doesn’t like. He is only able, because of his training, to analyze.

I found it interesting that I was extremely aware while reading the book that it was by an African-American author. Not that anything in the book necessarily indicated it, just that the way that I approached the book was affected by my knowledge of that. Many of the characters in the book struggle with issues of “blackness” – what does it mean to be African-American today, especially when given opportunities, both educational and financial, that many other African-Americans don’t have. When I would read about these issues, I noticed that part of me was always reserved: “Is it okay for me to laugh at this joke, even though I’m white?” I am always surprised at my own response to situations like this, how sensitive I can be about it, how uncomfortable it makes me.

As the title suggests, the book also explores the theme of Beauty. I think that people who are much wiser than I am have touched on that theme in other places, so I will just say that this was the idea behind the book that kept me reading. The ideal of female beauty, the beauty of art, how academia can destroy our appreciation of that beauty. How the beauty of art can also be destroyed by the idea of possession or ownership. The beauty that can be found and easily destroyed in human and family relationships.

Overall, I liked On Beauty quite a lot. Some people have said that it dragged, but it kept my attention the whole way through. I hear that it’s pretty different from her older books, but I will definitely give her next book a try, based on my experiences with this one.

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