On Beauty

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard’s older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

To be honest, I thought I was going to hate this. I tried to read White Teeth a few years back and couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I was expecting the same with On Beauty. I don’t know if it’s just such a vastly different book, or maybe I’ve learned to check my white privilege better and thus read black literature with more empathy. I still can’t fully relate to the characters in this book–I don’t expect to or need to–but reading Zadie Smith helps to understand the imbalance between not only white privilege and black culture, but also the difference between conforming to what American culture views as “White Values” and what Levi would refer to as “Street.”

On Beauty really is just a beautiful book. It is seriously complicated though. There are many relationships that criss-cross in this small college town, and everything is as awkward as possible. My anxiety was thump-thumping throughout the whole thing! It’s going on my mental Valuable Books list, though, as I feel as if a lightbulb has clicked on in so many aspects of my cultural education. Definitely 5 Dragons for Zadie Smith. I must go back and try White Teeth again, too.

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