Beauty: Its Shapes and Colors
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Such a very hackneyed phrase we often hear. Beauty has always been essential in how we view the world and our fellow human beings. Over the years, however, the definition of beauty has inevitably revolved, together with the passage of time. But how do we really define beauty? Is it based on one’s extrinsic attributes? Or do we base on the intangibles?
Beauty takes the center stage in Zadie Smith’s eponymous novel, On Beauty. Winner of the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, On Beauty relates the story of two families – the Kippses and the Belseys. With from contrasting backgrounds and with contrasting values and beliefs, tension develops between the two families. Ironically, as the dichotomy between the two families continue to widen, their lives are increasingly becoming more and more intertwined. With a supernova heading their way, how will these two families adapt to the changes?
“He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.” ~ Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Beauty, like love, takes on a wide spectrum of shapes and colors. Its definition, as well, is a cauldron of diverse ingredients and elements. It varies depending on culture, society and personal views. The very term itself has inspired writers and different artists into conjuring both visual and verbal representations of the word. But can one really capture the essence of beauty, of its purest form?
Smith’s On Beauty is more that just an endeavor to capture the essence of the word, beauty. In contrast to what the word stands for, Smith convened a motley crew of flawed and imperfect characters. The Belseys and the Kippses maybe flawed and imperfect but they are intriguing and interesting. These are mere adjectives that can reel readers in, for indeed, the two families suck the readers into the whirlpool of their idiosyncratic world which fuses the academe and the intelligentsia, the casual street scene and the middle income household.
As the centrifugal theme of the novel, beauty is represented in both its physical and non-physical manifestations. It is the primordial factor in which the primary characters assess their virtues. For women, it is a gauge upon which they measure their worth. The physical manifestation of beauty is an undertone in many of the circumstances surrounding the two families.
The diverse views on beauty is portrayed in the story as well. A concrete example lies on a painting which both Carlene Kipps and Kiki Belsey admire for its aesthetic and symbolic values. Their husbands, Monty and Howard, on the other hand, recognize it only for its pecuniary value rather than the value it held on their wives. All throughout the story, Monty and Howard, both esteemed members of the academia, fail to see the intrinsic value of beauty.
“These children spend so much time demanding the status of adulthood from you – even when it isn’t in your power to bestow it – and then when the real shit hits the fan, when you need them to be adults, suddenly they’re children again.” ~ Zadie Smith, On Beauty
The undercurrent of commentaries on the academia and private universities thrums up the surface of the narrative. The novel deals with the “uglier” side of the intelligentsia. The academe has become a fertile ground for the cultivation of patriarchal structure and whiteness. Rather than education, silence ensues from this imbalance. Erudition is used as a means to an end, a convenient tool to divert uncomfortable discussions and disadvantages situations.
The novel also addresses a plethora of subjects such as infidelity, political differences, cultural norms and social classes. An abstract painting of family life was perfectly painted by Smith. The perfect and authentic portrayal of what actually happens within a family in contrast to the veneer that they show to the rest of the world was one of the novel’s highest accomplishments.
Zadie Smith’s writing was lyrical and carefully measured. The novel’s language, at several stretches, played like a song to the soul. Despite this poetic quality, there was a very intellectual approach to the storytelling. It worked out well, at least on the surface. Beyond the writing, what unravels is a slow-burner of a story that takes time to develop and to warm up to.
Whilst the premise seems thought-provoking, the plot falls apart at the seams. After an interesting start, the plot starts to granulate. There was no natural flow to the dialogues and the interactions between the characters felt so contrived, and as bland as the plot itself. The characters, albeit intriguing and interesting, were underdeveloped and skeletal. There was too much focus on Howard and Monty that the more excitable characters simply float around the fringes. The monochromatic qualities of the main characters make it difficult to create a solid connection with the readers.
“Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you.” ~ Zadie Smith, On Beauty
No prose is perfect, that much is clear. On Beauty, despite its portentous title dwells on the antithesis of the term itself. The novel contains several thought-provoking and solid points about various institutions in the society such as the academic world and the family. It is, not to overstate, an ambitious undertaking. For its snail-pace, it takes time to endear one’s self to the story and to the characters.
There was too much erudition and intersections in the novel. While we tip our hats off to Smith for not leading the readers to one particular point-of-view, there was still a gaping hole that she leaves behind. On Beauty is not an entirely bad novel. It isn’t too great either. Its impact is ephemeral and barely lingers.
Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%
I love Zadie Smith’s writing. It had such a lyrical and poetic quality to it that I can’t help but be riveted. As beautiful as the language was, I have to admit that I had trouble unraveling the point of the story. Yes, it is about the different forms of beauty – extrinsic, intrinsic and everything in between – but there was just a general disconnect between the subject and how it was related.
It was a little underwhelming, really. I would’ve preferred if the stories of the secondary characters were deal with more; the stories of the primary characters felt pastiche and hackneyed. Perhaps I was just expecting too much. On a brighter note, I am intrigued by her debut novel, White Teeth. After all, I never let one book dictate how I see a writer’s bibliography.
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2006
Number of Pages: 443
Genre: Literary Fiction
Why do we fall in love with the people we do?
Why do we visit our mistakes on our children?
What makes life truly beautiful?
Set in New England mainly and London partly, On Beauty concerns a pair of feuding families – the Belseys and the Kippses – and a clutch of doomed affairs. It puts low morals among high ideals and asks some searching questions about what life does to love. For the Belseys and the Kippses, the confusions – both personal and political – of our uncertain age are about to be brought close to home: right to the heart of family.
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Zadie Adeline Smith (originally registered as Sadie) was born on October 25, 1975 in Brent, London, England to a Jamaican mother, Yvonne Bailey, and an English father, Harvey Smith.
Smith was a product of the state educational system, attending Malorees Junior School and Hampstead Comprehensive School. She studied English literature at King’s College, Cambridge, graduating with upper second-class honours. At Cambridge, a score of her short stories were published in a collection of new student writing called The Mays Anthology. These short stories caught the attention of a publisher which offered Smith a contract for her first novel.
White Teeth, published in 2000, was first introduced in 1997 to the publishing world. It was an instant bestseller and went on to win a score of awards such as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Betty Trask Award. Her second novel, The Autograph Man, was published in 2002 to commercial, but not critical, success. On Beauty, her third novel, was published in September 2005 and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Her latest novel, Feel Free, was published in 2018. Smith also wrote a play and published short stories and short story collections.
Smith was also a writer-in-resident ICA in London and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University. She is also a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.
She married Nick Laird in 2004. The couple has two children and are currently living in New York City and Queen’s Park, London.