Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Beauty - Zadie Smith

on beauty
zadie smith
c. 2005
443 pages
completed 9/9/2010

read for: before i die challenge, 1001 books, EW new classics

*may contain spoilers*

One may as well begin with Jerome's emails to his father.

Howard, a white British art history professor, is trying to make things right with his African American wife Kiki after she catches him in an affair. Their three children, Levi who is still in high school and Jerome and Zora who are attending college, are all trying to make sense of the world around them and their place in it.

I'm finding it really difficult to give a decent synopsis of this book. There was a lot going on. Each of the five family members had their own personal story taking place. And sometimes there were other people's stories thrown into the mix just for good measure. So it could take me a long time to really describe the basic plot. Instead, I will just say, thematically I think this books centers around discovering how you identify yourself and how that identity may clash with family. For example, Levi, the youngest child, identifies very strongly as African American. To Levi, being black is equal to being urban, unintellectual, and "street." Despite being raised in the suburbs in a intellectual household, Levi uses what he describes as street language as a way to connect with his heritage. His older siblings, though African American through their mother, were both born in England and don't have this same pull to be "black" the way Levi does.

Severe differences within the family led to a very difficult family dynamic. They were each on such different ends of all kinds of spectrums: white vs. black, British vs. American, intellectual vs. plebeian, religious vs. secular, artistic vs. realistic, among others. At times it really seemed like these people didn't know each other at all. The relationship between Levi and Howard was especially awkward to witness. They had absolutely nothing to say to each other. This leads me away from describing the book into talking about what I thought of it...

While thematically it was interesting, I hated every single character. This was a family who claimed to love each other and yet I could not get passed the complete disrespect they all displayed toward each other. I couldn't get behind any of the choices any of them made especially Howard. I find it hard to like a book when I don't like any of the people.

I also had trouble with the gaps in the story. By that I mean, an episode of the story would be happening, conflict would arise, and just when it looks like we're getting to the climax of the action, the chapter would end kind of cliffhanger-like and the next chapter would start several weeks or months later already well into the aftermath. I would have liked to have seen how things actually played out. And sometimes the issues or debates just petered out instead of coming to any kind of conclusion. For example, there is a major debate throughout the college Howard teaches at regarding "discretionaries" (underprivileged people not enrolled at the school but who are found by professors to show extraordinary promise in their field and who are then allowed to take class). Howard is for discretionaries, his professional rival is not. A lot of time is spent setting up this issue, but then instead of addressing it and coming to any kind of conclusion, something happens to make Howard's rival's opinion moot and so the whole thing just blows over. Also from the tone of the book, I think I come down on the wrong side of the debate.

I was interested in the themes and the story, but it kind of fell short for me. I wish I could have cared about any of the characters.


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