Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is about families operating in the world of academia in New England. It is “garrulous account of two contrasting, haplessly interconnected families in an urban setting teeming with ethnic, racial and economic diversity.” (NYT) This book took me some time to really get into, but overall I enjoyed it.
The families are headed by Howard Belsey, a left-wing Rembrandt scholar at Wellington (a fictional New England liberal arts college) and his archnemesis, Monty Kipps, a reactionary and thoroughly Anglicized Trinidadian scholar of Rembrandt. But I feel like the more interesting stories are about their wives, Kiki and Carlene, who form a strange but touching friendship without their husbands’ knowledge.
Race comes into play a lot – Howard’s wife Kiki “is African-American, and thus the three more-or-less college-age Belsey children are black, though not in all cases as black as they'd like to be.”
The political components are more for comedic affect – the Belsleys and the Kipps are almost caricatures of modern liberalism and conservatism.
The story didn’t drag at all, but some parts were more compelling than others. I had a hard time connecting with the Belsley children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. They seemed too extreme to me, and therefore unbelievable. And the Kipps' kids were nowhere near developed enough – Victoria had a bit part, but her character was mostly one dimensional except for a one-time clichéd nobody-takes-me-seriously-because-I’m-too-pretty bit.
I really liked the Carl sub-plot. He’s a rapper/poet from Roxbury who becomes entwined in the super-snooty Wellington college life. He's the anti-Belsley in that he sees academics as a practical means to an end, not the end itself.