NOTE: This is the second review for Amber Taylor's Blog Book Club. Welcome, readers... take your shoes off and stay a while! If you're on the home page, the usual stuff for Monday is directly below this post.
On Beauty is apparently an homage to E.M. Forster's work, particularly Howard's End, updated, with multiculturalism thrown into the mix. Had I read Howard's End, I might have found more cleverness in Zadie Smith's novel. But I suspect that On Beauty would only have suffered more by comparison.
The book sets out to tell the tale of two families of academics. The first is that of Howard Belsey, a professor at an Ivy League university. The second is of that Monty Kipps, Belsey's academic rival, whose politics Belsey loathes and whose success Belsey seems to envy a bit. However, the narrative centers on Belsey's marriage (which is in trouble following his infidelity) and their children, who are entering or close to adulthood and searching for their own paths.
Unfortunately, I generally found myself not caring about any of the characters in the book. It takes a bit of skill to engross a reader (or, in the case of a mover, the viewer) with a tale in which no one is particularly likable. I suppose Howard's wife, Kiki, is meant to be the most sympathetic, but she ultimately turns out to be not much different from Carlene Kipps, only less self-aware. Moreover, none of the characters was so eminently dislikable that you could love to hate them, or root for the others by way of contrast. Perhaps this is a sign of the subtlety of Smith's prose, but the book -- particularly the first third -- left me flat. I liked the second act better, but was left unsatisfied by the third.
When I don't care much for a story, the nitpicking items grate all the more. Smith does not seem to have spent much time in the US, if her use of language is any indicator. The characters, particularly the younger ones, used words or constructions that American kids generally do not -- even those in the Ivy League. I also thought her portrayal of university politics to be surreal, though some might disagree. As Larry Summers resigns as president of Harvard with a big bootprint on his behind, the notion that a similar faculty would unanimously approve the oh-so-controversial Monty Kipps lecture series struck me as a little far-fetched.
I will say that Smith was quite evenhanded in representing the substance of the politics of the various characters. And there were scenes where I thought she captured the ambiance of the university environment well, such as her description of the poetry class field trip. Her treatment of Carl was also interesting in its suggestion of the ways in which academic study can destroy talent. But I've already heard that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog -- the subject tends to die in the process. Thus, it was interesting, but not enlightening. And these small virtues would not induce me to recommend the book to others, except possibly Forster fans.
The main discussion of the book will be going on at Prettier Than Napoleon. Next month's selection is Saturday, by Ian Mcewan. Feel free to join the club.