I finished reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith a couple of nights ago. I really enjoyed this book. It's been a while since I read White Teeth, but I remember thinking that even Smith's most absurd characters work as real people. I think the characters in this novel were even more believable to me. Could it be they are more familiar to me because they are American and in for the most part? Maybe.
Smith certainly has a way with words. Duh! Could I be more obvious? :-) Anyway, one of my favorite passages in the book is the description of Zora at the beginning of the second part of the novel. I love Smith's description of Zora, the wannabe academic daughter of the professor, which opens the second part of the novel:
"Last year, when Zora was a freshman, sophomores had seemed altogether a different kind of human: so very definite in their tastes and opinions, in their loves and ideas. Zora woke up this morning hopeful that a transformation of this kind might have visited her in the night, but, finding it hadn't, she did what girls generally do when they don't feel the part: she dressed it instead. How successful this had been she couldn't say. Now she stopped to examine herself in the window of Lorelie's, a campy fifty hairdressers on the corner of Houghton and Maine. She tried to put herself in her peers' shoes. She asked herself the extremely difficult question: What would I think of me? She had been gunning for something like 'bohemian intellectual; fearless; graceful; brave and bold'. She was wearing a long boho skirt in a deep green, a white cotton blouse with an eccentric ruff at the neck, a think brown suede belt of Kiki's from the days when her mother could still wear belts, a pair of clumpy shoes and a kind of hat. What kind of hat? A man's hat, of green felt, that looked like a fedora, a little, but was not one. This was not what she had meant when she left the house. This was not it at all."
I have lived this scene more than once in my life. Smith is so good at creating humor, even satire, that doesn't bite hard or cross the line into parody. I knowingly laugh at Zora's attempt to "look the part," but there's no ridicule in the description so I don't take offense. (I'm probably not making much sense here. I'm not very articulate tonight.)
Another sentence that I loved: "It was the shady groves of dictionaries that Jack fell in love, bowed his head in awe and thrilled at an unlikely tale, for example, the bizarre etymology of the intransitive verb 'ramble.'" (Did I misquote? I will check this when I return from Thanksgiving and update if I did.) I love the idea of a "shady groves of dictionaries"--a beautiful garden of words.
My only problem with the book was the Levi's street dialogue. It didn't sound like the young African American boys that I teach. Of course, the boys that I teach didn't grow up in a college town or with a professor for a father. Still, I felt his use of street lingo a bit too forced. I'm not sure if this is a misstep by Smith or if it is indicative of Levi's desire to be the street kid despite being very middle class.
There's a scene late in the book where two young men end up in tears when they see the reality of their lives. Jerome is saddened by his realization that his father had had sex with his first love, and Carl is upset by his realization that his first love, rap, has bought him a ticket into academia, but the ticket doesn't allow full admission and comes with strings attached. The juxtaposition of the sensitive intellectual and the streetwise rapper standing in the freezing cold, crying, is quite effective.
I really liked the ending of this book. Power has shifted, but there are no real winners or losers. The book is essentially about a family, and in the end the family is still there. Although much has changed and some relationships are strained, the family does not desert one another. Don't get me wrong the ending is not touchy-feely, but it is a satisfying resolution.