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Yet another book review

Most of the books I've reviewed here came out at least a few years ago and the review was written months after I finished reading. Not this time though. I need to write it all up while it's still fresh in my mind. "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith was published last year and was a great success - not so surprising, since her first and second books were bestsellers. Zadie Smith is British and a month older than myself (I am green with envy. Not that I ever thought of writing a novel. But STILL.) and wrote "On Beauty" on the framework of Howard's End by E.M. Forster. I was not aware of that until I was almost done, so I suppose it might be a nice perk if you've read Howard's End (I haven't.), but it is definitely not necessary. Zadie Smith is a household name in Britain and I assume in the States as well among the literary interested (or by the library employed).

Anyway, beyond those details being myself unable to give a professional and balanced review I will just simply blabber on why I loved this novel so much. Primarily this book is not as much about events (although there are enough) as about people, about characters - something I am always interested in when reading a novel but that usually disappoints. It truly shows incredible gift when someone is capable of inventing and describing convincing characters, people you almost believe are real. Zadie Smith portrays them good and bad but not in that forced way, where the preachy message of "We are all so flawed!" is so thinly veiled in every passage. She connects the seemingly redundant descriptions of surroundings and actions (I don't know, playing with muffin wrappers while fighting with your sister, or the random picture on the wall that will forever stay in your head because you were looking at it as you were watching your marriage fall apart...) in such a perfect way that certain passages and their atmosphere would stay with me for hours later... As I'm changing Ivan's diaper I find myself worried about the main character's wife and her emotional turmoil. I loved how certain emotions were expressed in such a close and personal way... it almost felt like looking at the perfect painting describing a familiar scene much better than reality every could. Maybe all this is familiar to most people and the reason why it has such an impact on me has something to do with the fact that I rarely read fiction these days, but even if. This is the first book in many years that I feel I will need to own.

Oh, what it is about, yes. It's about a family - the father (white), a decidedly liberal British professor at a small Liberal Arts college on the (US) East Coast, his wife (black) a health care professional, somewhat uneasy in the academic world, their three (almost) adult children and the family's rivals - a conservative reactionary college professor (black) with an ill wife and two children. The novel follows the possible demise of the main characters' marriage after 30 years - how it is played out publicly and privately, how it affects the children but conveys in the process more about questions of middle age, about the meaning of life, about things relevant and irrelevant, about the lies we tell ourselves, about truth, about... beauty.

Why you should read it: You will enjoy this if you are interested in people, how they think and operate and how those two things sometimes are completely at odds. If you are interested in what constitutes identity and the push and pull between our convictions and the public perception... you will like it. You will find yourself on an emotional journey and benefit from seeing the world with other people's eyes while in the process get to know yourself a little better. The novel doesn't manipulate or make judgements but inevitably dares you to make your own as well as question your own perception.

Why you should not read it: Sigh. I suppose there are people out there who will not like this and I feel I should warn you, although obviously I really wish everyone would agree with me! You will not enjoy this book if you are bothered by people making very wrong choices or having opposite beliefs (opposite of yours of course) and not necessarily improving in the end. You will not like it if you are having a hard time with characters being inconsistent, vulgar some times, loving at others, loathsome and lovable and generally confused. Stuff happens but this is not CSI or High Noon, so don't read it if you want a lot of action and compelete simple resolution at the end.

In short, I find myself completely incapable of doing this novel justice in terms of accurate and all-encompassing description. Maybe a few favorite quotes will help:

p 235 (three siblings meet by complete coincidence one morning in the city):
"People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two lovers, but this too was great, sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. (...) He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away."

p 398 (the husband making a plea to his wife to forgive him, trying to explain his love):
"But I don't want to be without... us. You're the person I - you're my life, Keeks. You have been and you will be and you are. I don't know how you want me to say it. You're for me - you are me. We've always known that - and there's no way out now anyway. I love you. You're for me," repeated Howard."

p 424 (a mother going through old things in the basement):
"Several small items made her cry: a tiny woolen bootie, a broken orthodontic retainer, a woggle from a cub-scout tie. She had not become Malcolm X's private secretary. She never did direct a movie or run for Senate. She could not fly a plane. But here was all this."
- (I thought this was one of the sweetest and most accurate ways of indicating the satisfaction and ambivalence of motherhood... the sacrifice and the success..."but here was all this"... perfect.)

Posted at 08:51 AM on September 27, 2006

It's a good book, isn't it? I've read it a couple of months ago after a friend of mine strongly suggested that I do, so I went out and bought it. She warned me that I'd either totally hate or totally love it. All in all I enjoyed the read, though at first I did have some issues with the author's tone and sarcasm, which sometimes grated with me, so I thought oh no, I'm belonging to those who hate the book... Some of the humor I also totally missed; I don't know, it must be British humor or something ;)

This all aside, I loved the academic setting, could so relate to these issues and conflicts there; the characters and their interrelationships were awesome; but all in all I thought the story was rather sad (the story of Carlene Kipps is so heartbreaking) . At the end I thought I'd better read it all over again for all the parts that I missed. It's definitely a book to read more than once, in my opinion. Am going to tackle _White Teeth_ soon (again my friend who lent me her copy).

Posted by Alice at September 28, 2006 5:51 AM

I think there was little laugh-out-loud humor in it if it all. It was more understatements and also tongue-in-cheek stuff.

I agree there is some sad stuff in there but I didn't feel the same about Carlene Kipps. It was sad, but she portrayed her fairly I think. She didn't end up being as much of a victim as Kiki thought she was. Also I thought it was interesting to see how Kiki shared some fond thoughts about art with HER and not her husband who is this Rembrandt scholar. That's another view I appreciated in the book.. the opposites of love of art and art academics.. it was like two worlds where you'd think they'd be deeply connected.

I loved the ending. If I wasn't such a robot, I would've cried.

Posted by dinka at September 28, 2006 9:05 AM