On Beauty

On Beauty

by Zadie Smith

Arlene Almas (01/05/13): Howard Belsey is the father, Kiki the mother in a mixed-race family living in an almost too idyllic college town near Boston. Howard is British, a professor of art whose academic specialty is Rembrandt, and now, in middle age, a bit of a clueless nebbish who can't connect with his children. Kiki is African-American, a straight shooter, and a mom who adores her kids yet is no-nonsense when dealing with them. The three children are completely different from one another but are attached by strong familial bonds, even though Luther is usually away either in England or at college in the U.S., Zora is an activist passionately engaged with campus issues at the college where her father teaches, and Levi seems permanently linked to his iPod and is committed to building up his street cred.

At the center of the plot is the steadily escalating clash between Howard and Monty Kipps, a British West Indian academic in direct competition with Howard as a Rembrandt scholar. When Kipps moves his family to the same town where the Belseys live to teach at the same college as Howard, everything heats up and eventually boils over. I enjoyed Zadie Smith's portrayal not only of racial issues, but also of marital, sexual, family, and academic themes. At times the issues might appear to overpower the narrative, but I don't feel they take away from this very human story.
Rating: ****

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