Wednesday, December 22, 2010

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith

Wellington is a fictitious college somewhere near Boston. Howard is a white art history professor who cheated on his black wife, Kiki, with a white poetry professor, Claire. Howard is a staunch proponent of affirmative action and liberal politics in general, and Howard's nemesis, Monty, a black professor, is a stalwart of the religious right who wants to take the "liberal" out of liberal arts. There is a fair amount of contention among Howard's colleagues over Monty's right to espouse his right-wing opinions in a series of lectures and over Claire's right to include poor but talented students in her very exclusive poetry class, even though they are not enrolled at Wellington. These issues, however, are not as compelling as the more intimate ones facing Howard's family. The book opens with the very uncomfortable scene where Howard attempts to break off the engagement of his son Jeremy to Monty's daughter, Victoria, when the whole thing was a rather unfortunate misunderstanding. In fact, the book's most memorable events are all somewhat embarrassing, including Howard's youngest son Levi's attempt to rally his co-workers to refuse to work on Christmas Day. The irony is that Levi's family members are mostly atheists, and his coworkers are actually pumped about the opportunity to be paid double-time for the holiday. Howard and Kiki's daughter Zora's forte is argument, and she manages to blackmail her way into Claire's poetry class. The ten or so main characters become tangled in relationships with one another that are often surprising and usually regrettable. Although Kiki is the emotional and ethical conscience in the family, no one person is truly the central character; it's more of an ensemble cast. The finale happens in sort of a flourish that puts the finishing touches on this colorful canvas of a family with still a few challenges ahead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For a more detailed analysis of the baroque aesthtetic of Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty, read Jérôme POINSOT's article in MONTRAY KREYOL website[].