Title: On Beauty
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Press
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Peter Francis James
First line: One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father.
Monty Kips and Howard Belsey are academic enemies – arguing opposing viewpoints on the artist Rembrandt. It’s not just their academic opinions that are different, however. Belsey is a liberal atheist; Kipps is a conservative Christian. Belsey is a white Englishman living in Massachusetts; Kipps is a black Trinidadian living in England.
Howard lives with his African-American wife, Kiki, and their three children – Jerome, Zora, and Levi – in the university town of Wellington, where Howard teaches art history. His oldest son, Jerome, has recently become a born-again Christian, and goes to work for the summer as an intern with Monty Kipps, to the humiliation and chagrin of his father. While there, Jerome forms an attachment with Professor Kipps’s beautiful daughter, Victoria, an attachment that neither set of parents is in favor of. When Howard brings Jerome home in a sulk, he doesn’t realize that his world is about to be turned upside down by the revelation of a secret he has been keeping – and the Kipps’s family arrival in Wellington, where Monty will give a series of guest lectures.
It is extremely hard to write a plot synopsis for a book like On Beauty. At it’s heart, it is the story of the Belsey family and how they weather a series of family calamities. It is also a beautifully written exploration of the world of academia, and it’s inherent meritocracy and the way educational opportunities can create class divisions, especially in a racially diverse city like Boston. Smith deals with so many cultural issues: race, religion, gender, poverty, infidelity, affirmative action, the importance of education.
Howard Belsey is a white Englishman who has married a black woman from Florida, and would never consider himself bigoted – and yet he has his own areas of prejudice against the uneducated and against the religious. He is unable to accept his son’s new-found faith, and Jerome is diminished in his eyes because of his desire to believe in something greater than himself.
Monty Kipps is an arrogant conservative who believes that every black man and woman should be able to find their own way in the world with out a hand up. His Christian faith is more a matter of appearances than a matter of his character, which is without mercy and full of hypocrisy.
Each of these patriarchs has a strong woman by his side. Kiki Belsey is now one of my favorite female characters – she is a big-hearted and big-bodied black woman, a woman who knows herself and speaks her mind, who loves her family with passion and yet hasn’t lost her individual identity. Carlene Kipps epitomizes the submissive Christian wife, a woman who has allowed her own opinions and needs to be subsumed by the largeness of her husband’s personality and the needs of her family. Her character made me sad – as did the character of Zora Belsey, a young woman who would do well to model herself after her mother, but instead seems determined to make her own mistakes.
On Beauty is a literary novel, one that doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional story arc of most contemporary fiction. Instead of one major crisis and then resolution, there is a series of crises, and not every one of them is resolved. There are many tangents taken along the way to explore the idea of beauty in art, the value of education no matter how it is obtained, and the joys and trials of marriage and parenting. There were many passages I would have jotted down to remember if I had been reading it in print, but I don’t regret listening to it on audio one bit. Peter Francis James has a rich, gorgeous voice, and listening to Monty Kipp’s Trinidadian accent in his musical tones was especially delightful. I will simply have to re-read it in print one day to revisit the brilliance of the writing. Highly recommended.