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ON ON BEAUTY–The Zadie Smith sensation

My short grapevine indicates that Zadie Smith’s On Beauty  is all the rage these days not only among individual readers, but among book clubs. And it deserves to be.
My other sample of Smith was The Autograph Man, which I found exciting and adventurous, full of exciting characters and situations, off-center dialogue and viewpoints, and yeasty with modern/age-old themes. Smith is at home in the mind of women or men, in academia or the ghetto, among blacks or whites, in England or America. Her love and mastery of language infuses both description and dialogue. However, in the end I thought The Autograph Man a bit strident and self-consciously iconoclastic. Not so On Beauty.
Set in a fictional Massachusetts University (small, private, liberal arts) Town near Boston, the novel centers on the Belsey family. The Belsey’s are a mix of race, class, and nationality that might have been considered too oddball to be believable even a half-century ago. Today, however, a fat Florida-born black woman married to a white English working-class-cum-academic and their mixed-race children seems well within the pale. As we enter their lives, the couple’s three children are on the brink of adulthood, the daughter (middle child) enrolled not only in the University but in her father’s class. The father-professor, Howard, is involved in a bitter academic feud with a (black, Carribean descended) London academic named Tipps over–of all things–an interpretation of a Rembrandt painting. In a manner that I can’t describe believably but which Smith renders natural and inevitable (it’s the magic writers can do, isn’t it? Transform “Are you kidding?” into “Of course?”), the argument morphs from art history to affirmative action to homophobia to family values and spills beyond the pages of academic journals to flesh and blood confrontation among members of both families.
As the dynamics proceed, we’re inside the minds and hearts of every member of the family, looking at the world through the eyes of mixed-race children who have their own special identity struggles with a dimension that most of us can only imagine. As the principal of a middle school attended by quite a number of such students, I can attest to the pain and confusion of their situation. Faced with one of those government race-identification forms, one student said, “They want me to choose between my mother and my father, right?” Right.
We’re confronted by strong-father/weak-father, liberal/conservative (“Taking the ‘liberal’ out of ‘liberal arts.’), plenty of race, sex, street, and halls of academe. All of that wrapped in powerful writing. And don’t let the MFA gurus tell you that your protagonists need to be strong, sympathetic characters. Not if you’re Smith.
You can’t sum up a work of this dimension in a phrase, but Smith comes as close as you can with the what to me is the telling line from the title poem (Not Smith’s): “The beautiful don’t lack the wound.”
Read this book.

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