Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was fascinating because it read like a classic novel, except modern. The story focuses on the Belsey family, an interracial family living in a small town centered around a liberal arts college just outside of Boston. Howard, the white, hyper intellectual, almost unfeeling patriarch married his intelligent, political, passionate African American wife Kiki and gave birth to three children, struggling to find their place in the word. The story spirals out to include the Kipps, the family of Howard’s academic rival. As the Belsey increasingly interact with the Kipps, they slowly fall to pieces. Watching them crumble really highlights the pressures and constructs placed on individuals by gender, race and intelligence.
It’s modern because it acknowledges technology exists. Cell phones. Emails. Googling. It’s surprisingly rare to see a novel that squarely fits into the literature category acknowledge that technology is pervasive in our lives. And that it shapes our interactions. It wasn’t fully integrated into the novel, not at all. But it was there, and it struct me as notable because I so rarely read a modern novel that receives this type of literary attention that acknowledges that times have changed.
The problem with a book that provides such an intense character study is I always want to know more. You can’t fully address all of the characters, their lives, their idiosyncracies without making the book insufferably long. And I thought that Levi, the youngest son, was particularly fascinating. Raised in an upper class, highly educated family he began skipping school, selling illegal DVDs and pretending he was from the bad part of town. He actively rejected the American dream that everyone claims to be working towards, and I wanted to know more about why, and how.