My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I guess it was inevitable that I would compare On Beauty (2005) to White Teeth—Zadie’s debut novel published in 2000. I had just finished White Teeth and with subtle interest I picked up On Beauty at a local used book store for around $6. I had just returned from a trip to Boston and thought that this would be a perfect way to further my authorial interest, with a little local flavor. As it happens, one of the rare references I got was one alluding to the shady characters hanging out at the Harvard T-Station—spot on.
First of all, the novels share a basic plot point: two culturally, socially and intellectually different families become entangled when one child disapprovingly becomes infatuated with the other family. Very “Romeo and Juliet“. And very White Teeth. In this case it is Jerome Besley, his early obsession with Victoria Kipps, and his eventual adoption of the Kipps’ favored religion: Christianity—an enormous faux pas in the eyes of the liberal-secular majority that is the Besley household. There are numerous other similarities between the novels that I will spare you, but there should be trivia about them somewhere!
As for a novel of “culture clashes” and “culture wars,” I didn’t find much of interest. As a text detailing academia, you are better off going for David Lodge’s triumvirate of college novels: Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), and Nice Work (1988).
But, what I found in On Beauty was a matured writer. It had been five years since White Teeth, and Smith has grown in her writing. OB isn’t as biting, or loose with it’s pop culture references, nor is it as playful with the postmodern elements of style. While this style is THE hallmark of Smith’s first novel, and although I often expected those same sarcastic and layered references in OB, that same style wasn’t as prevalent. Her descriptions were not saturated with obscure references (seriously, how many Americans will get the Last of the Summer Wine reference in WT??), nor were they as biting.
And that’s the point: On Beauty is not White Teeth. So, what do I mean by “mature”? Well, at the base of this story is the Belsey family, and, well, Howard’s End (1910) (sorry for the obvious pun… but you know you were thinking it!). Smith does some of her best writing in this novel when she is depicting the passion between Howard and Kiki Belsey. The fight between the two near the end of the novel left me knocked out. I had to put the book down it was so true. (spoiler) The final sex scene is masterfully done, and bereft of any of the love Kiki and Howard held for another. Smith describes well Howard’s reliance on sexual intercourse as the cure-all, and Kiki’s final realization how little she feels for Howard. The ending focuses on them as a tale of a couple who know one another so well—30 years—that there is both extremes of pain and pleasure in this knowing.
This novel does answer one particular aspect of criticism directed toward WT: that it is a series of short-stories, or vignettes, and not a novel. On Beauty is most certainly a novel. At the heart of it is the Belsey family, and this is what should be remembered. So many other characters pass in and out—Katherine Armstrong, for instance—but there main function is to illuminate our true familial focus. Even the Kipps’ are only highlighted through the Belsey’s vision and not on their own. This familial unity stringing the novel along is what makes this a mature novel from a mature writer.