Zadie Smith is one of those authors whose books I look at in every book store and now and then buy one to put on my shelf without ever having read any of her books. I did read a short story of hers once in class, "You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town." And what I vaguely remember of it was good.
On Beauty is not what I expected it to be at all. I am not really sure what I expected it to be, maybe something more like Toni Morrison, but this is not the same at all. Smith writes about an academic white man, Howard, who is married to a large black woman, Kiki. They have a family and they all have issues that are being dealt with. They have three children, all with completely different mindsets on the world around them. Their oldest son Jerome is away interning with Howard's academic nemesis, Kipps, and he falls in love with his daughter. But she has plans of her own and suddenly the whole Kipps family is back in Howard's hometown, working at the same university.
"Like many academics, Howard was innocent of the world. He could identify thirty different ideological trends in the social sciences, but he did not really know what a software engineer was."
The story is constantly shifting, jumping ahead in time and changing perspective when you think you know what is going to happen. Howard is struggling to keep his marriage together despite the fact that he had an affair and then lied horribly about it. I found it very interesting to see how Kiki dealt with all of this, interesting and depressing.
"A five-year gap between siblings is like a garden that needs constant attention. Even three month apart allows the weeds to grow up between you."
All in all, I found this book pretty depressing. I am not sure what the reader is meant to feel at the ending. I did not think much of Howard at all and frankly most of the other characters seemed very stuck in one mindset for most of the book. Everyone acts how I predicted they would.
It did made me long for college in a very strong way. Smith does a great job of creating a college that has all of it's pieces running and captures the feel of academia. I just would have liked something more plot-wise. I think that my biggest complaint was that (almost) every time she builds up to a conflict, a scene where shit is going to hit the fan, we are let down. Time is skipped and the characters are already on to another thing while I am still trying to figure out how the hell things happened.
Despite my feelings about this book, I think I would still read her other works. I have White Teeth and really want to read it; hopefully I have a better review for that one.