On Beauty by Zadie Smith



This novel pulled me into its orbit with its wit and charm and I followed the story greedily entering the lives of the main characters without realizing, until I was almost a third of the way through, that there were references to E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End and that, in line with the novel’s title, it is all about the ‘beauty’ that is found everywhere and takes many forms. 

The story opens with a string of one-sided e-mails between Howard Belsey and his son Jerome. This is a device used to introduce the family at the centre of this story. The Belsey family includes: Howard, white, middle class, an academic of British origin married to Kiki, who is black, American and the family’s emotional anchor. Howard has reached a point in his career where his advancement has plateaued. In fact, Howard’s academic prestige seems to be in decline.  Moreover, his and Kiki’s marriage is threatened as Howard has been indulging in an affair with one of his colleagues. Their eldest son, Jerome, is a senior at university, Zora is the middle child and only daughter who is starting her second year at the same university and then there is Levi the youngest and a high school student. The Belsey’s live in a gentile New England town and Howard teaches at Wellington, meant to represent an Ivy League university such as Harvard where Zadie Smith herself has taught. At the beginning of the story Howard is obliged to travel to London and deal with what he perceives as a family crisis as Jerome has fallen in love with Victoria, the daughter of Howard’s academic rival Sir Monty Kipps, an ultra-conservative professing right wing Christian values. Monty is a specialist in the same area of art history as Howard. Jerome has left his secular upbringing and embraced Christianity. Howard fears he has gone over to the enemy camp, as he is working with Monty as his intern. The Kipps family is from Trinidad. They live what Jerome perceives as a quiet, gentile, domestic existence contrasting unfavourably in Jerome’s eyes with the boisterous, Belsey household where there is always, loud music, bickering siblings and the racket created by a busy family.  Monty and Howard are both highly respected academics but have widely differing artistic values. They dislike each other on a personal level as Howard regards Monty as rigid and his work as unoriginal while Monty has written off Howard as a blowhard without substance. These two families are held together by their long-suffering wives; Kiki and Monty’s wife Carlene. 

Beauty and its meaning is a theme that concerns many of the characters in this book. Kiki is a woman of thoughtfulness and depth of feeling but is concerned that her physical appearance is failing. She is worried that her weight gain in middle age has made her fall out of beauty and the reason Howard has wandered into an extra marital affair. This is revealed to be consistent with Howard’s thinking. Despite his expertise as an art historian in the study of beauty, Howard seems to have been easily led astray by thoughtless caprice, unconscious of his destructive behaviour. He is full of self-pity and does not see how fortunate he is in his family life or how much pain his philandering has caused.  Then there is the beautiful daughter of Monty Kipps who does not return Jerome’s affection and who is obsessed with beauty; principally her own. Her life is youthfully skewered toward an impulse to use her physical beauty in pursuit of something that is solely sexual. She enjoys the power beauty has to manipulate those around her. 

Kiki and Monty’s wife, Carlene provide a link between these two families. Early in the story Monty accepts a visiting professorship at Wellington and the Kipps relocate from London and move close to where the Belsey’s live.  Kiki and Carlene develop a sympathetic understanding. Later in the novel it is revealed that Carlene is terminally ill with cancer and has told no one about this, not ever her own family. In her will Carlene leaves Kiki, a valuable painting. This bequest is only discovered after her death and confounds Monty and his children. This is where I made the connection with Howards End.  The same shock of surprise occurs when Ruth Wilcox leaves, her summer house to Margaret Schlegel in a deathbed adjustment to her will. At this point it occurred to me that there were other little literary ‘nods’, to Howards End such as when, at a concert, Zora inadvertently goes off with the cd player of an impoverished but brilliant young man named Carl Thomas and in retrieving it makes his acquaintance. This is a reference to when Helen Schlegel goes off with Leonard Bast’s umbrella, a chance occurrence that initiates a long chain of life changing events. 

The novel can certainly be enjoyed without ever having read Howard’s End but if you have, it reinforces a theme based on the barriers to a decent life that are set up and perpetuated by money and privilege. In Howard’s End the barriers of wealth and privilege are formidable. A century later these barriers still exist. Zora attempts to take Carl on as her protégé and find ways for him to audit classes at Wellington and enter the university by a figurative backdoor. A major obstacle turns out to be Monty Kipps whose ultra conservative beliefs gain favour in the university community He and his cohort are regressive in attitude and argue against ideas such as affirmative action or making the university more open to the community including its poor, street wise population.

This story has many layers that I have barely touched on. It is sustained by a clear, eloquent prose. I am reminded of the writing of Robertson Davies, Saul Bellow even Iris Murdoch, all great story tellers. I am wondering what took me so long to discover Zadie Smith. She is brilliant.