On Beauty by Zadie Smith
It’s no secret that as an academic, I enjoy reading academic sendups. I also enjoy literary remakes, and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty includes BOTH. Lucky me! I’ve read three of her five novels—White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and Swing Time—and I’m trying to work my way through her other two novels. I think she’s an amazing author, and I’ve long hoped that the kind of lightning in a bottle she captured in White Teeth could somehow find its way onto her pages again. And while I don’t exactly think that On Beauty is just quite that, it is nevertheless excellent and meaty as a literary read.
Howard Belsey is a floundering academic with a book on Rembrandt long in the works. His son becomes enmeshed with his professional rival’s daughter, and the novel spirals from there into a clash of cultures and values. It’s a remake of E.M. Forster’s classic Howards End, and while you don’t need to have read it to appreciate On Beauty, there are definitely some plot points and in-jokes that make the experience richer. We follow several members of the Belsey family as they struggle to understand their lifestyles and values in relation to Howard and their hybrid American-British cultures.
If you like likeable characters, I can predict that you won’t like this book. For a book about beauty, there is a ton of ugliness here. If, however, you are interested in studies of personal philosophy and poking of fun at culture wars, then I recommend you give this book a shot. Smith is a masterful writer with lots of sly allusions that are, to my view, more accessible than Salman Rushdie’s style of writing and a great deal less pretentious than his.