Thursday, January 22, 2009

On Beauty

I received On Beauty by Zadie Smith from a friend and since I heard lots of people say they loved it, I was really excited to read it. Plus I've been on a quest to find quality books which aren't miserable and I was told that this was such a book - a happy book. For these reasons and some others, I thought I would love it. I wanted to love it. But as sometimes happens when you hear too much hype, I didn't love it. That makes me very sad but there it is.

On Beauty is basically about the Belsey family and a litttle bit about the Kipps family. The two have a feud going, but some members are drawn to each other despite this. First and foremost there's Howard, head of the Belseys. Intellectual, professor at a liberal arts college, going through a midlife crisis, he loves his family but is dissatisfied with his life in general. I suppose he gets to thinking that there must be more. There's his wife Kiki who has to deal with Howard's crisis, as well as the varied crises of their children and her own disappointments. There are the Belsey children who are trying to find their place in the world. The opposing Kipps family is similar, except that their beliefs are right-wing, so very much unwanted in Howard's liberal arts world.

This book is about so many things that it's hard to know where to start. It's about people - regular people who want to achieve something in life, who want to be happy who want others to think of them in a certain way. It's about belonging, that incredible need to feel part of something, but it's also about the need to be an individual and to follow one's own course.

It's about the differences between men and women, in their actions and their reactions. I love this following thought of a male character: "He had not seen her since that afternoon. And with the miracke that is male compartmentalization he had barely thought of her either."

It's about love and how it survives and changes and breaks. Not only about romantic and sexual love, but also about sibling love. Here is a passage that really touched me, the thoughts of Jerome about his sister Zora and his brother Levi:

"Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel - before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets. After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been."
On Beauty also has a political edge, a racial aspect. The Belseys are an inter-racial family and one of the Belsey children wants to be only Black. He wants to belong with his 'brothers'. But Howard is white and a professor and he and Kiki (who once said that she gave up everything Black for her husband) built a regular, white middle-class life for their family. Whether this is actually possible or not is also a theme that runs through this book, as is whether we should help 'our' people. This passage really struck me:

"...but this self-hatred. When I look at Condoleeza, and Co-lin - God! I want to be sick - I see this rabid need to separate themselves away from the rest of us - it's like "We got the opportunity and now the quota's full and thank you very much, adios."
I've gone on long enough, but there is more to say! The book is about so much more but I guess you'll have to read it yourself. And I think you should read it - Zadie Smith's amazingly original use of language warrants it. I didn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to for many reasons - the main one is probably that I really wanted a happy book and this was recommended to me as such. It's Certainly not a happy book - all the characters are dissatisfied with their lives and are struggling to find/accept their place in the world.

Challenges: A-Z Challenge, 999 Challenge, Countdown Challenge, New Authors


Lezlie said...

That is a problem with hyped-up books. You probably would have liked it more if you had no expectations at all. This one is on my radar for next month, since I'm thinking about reading some African American Lit in honor of it being Black History Month.


Ana S. said...

I'm sorry you didn't love it! I actually did, much more so than I was expecting. I enjoyed your review, though, and I agree that it's really hard to explain what the book is about.

joanna said...

Lezlie - I look forward to hearing your thoughts about this one...

Nymeth - I know you loved it and so thought I would too... I'm glad I read it anyway, since I enjoyed certain aspects of it. Have you read White Teeth?

Ana S. said...

Not yet, but it's on one of my challenge lists for this year, so I hope to get to it soon.

Dani In NC said...

I'd worry about the person who told you that "On Beauty" was a happy book :-). This book is worth reading. It's the kind of book that reading groups should pick up because there is a lot in it that will spark discussion. However, happy it ain't!

joanna said...

Dani - I asked her about it and she was talking more about its beauty... You're right about the book club thing!