Beauty – in the eye of the beholder
December 12, 2006
In her preface to “On Beauty,” author Zadie Smith writes, “This is a novel inspired by a love of E.M. Forster.” On the title page of his 1910 novel, “Howards End,” Forster wrote, “Only connect.”
Both authors understand that what brings happiness or sadness to human life is our ability or inability to connect with one another, and they write wonderfully about it.The Belseys are the center of “On Beauty,” a sprawling, contemporary story of messy family life, the buffoonery of university politics and the alien experience of immigrant workers. The story is set in the fictional college town of Wellington, with excursions to nearby Boston and trans-Atlantic forays to London.Englishman Howard Belsey, a self-important Rembrandt scholar and professor at Wellington College, is the restless husband of Kiki, a no-nonsense African-American earth mother. During a London internship with Monty Kipps, Belsey’s arch-rival in Rembrandt studies, the Belseys’ sensitive son, Jerome, becomes enraptured with the Kipps family, especially daughter Victoria. This episode ignites a string of firecrackers comprising relationships, conspiracies and combat between the two families.Entertaining subplots involve the abrasive activist Zora Belsey, Howard’s daughter and student, both at Wellington and in life; her high school brother Levi (my favorite), connected to his iPod beneath a black stocking cap and striving to connect beyond his academic family, and gorgeous hip-hop artist Carl Thomas, a kind of cause célèbre for Zora’s poetry class and affirmative action at Wellington.
To connect can be sordid, misbegotten, rewarding or hilarious (as when Levi tries to join the street vendors of Roxbury, Boston’s black neighborhood). However, a connection that is instant, solid and nurturing is the magical relationship between Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps, Monty’s wife. No matter the conflict between their husbands and children, the two women need each other’s friendship and companionship. They also share a love of painting, particularly Haitian folk art, that has nothing to do with their husbands’ years of studying and writing about the great masters.l laughed a lot while reading “On Beauty” and reveled in Kiki and Carlene’s company. Smith, whose first novel, “White Teeth,” was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2000, when she was 25 years old, is wise beyond her years in writing pitch-perfect dialogue between family members and teenagers, in deftly portraying multiculturalism, and in finding beauty that makes life bearable.Zadie Smith and E.M. Forster were both in their early 30s when she wrote “On Beauty” and he wrote “Howards End.” Being master observers of the human condition apparently has nothing to do with age.