On Beauty, Zadie Smith: the conflicting ethics of beauty

It takes strong will, and frankly, stubbornness, to gulp down Zadie Smith like a mere soda, instead of sipping it like the fine wine it is. So it is that I didn’t, in the end, “speed re-read” Zadie Smith as I had intended to, because On Beauty deserves more than that.

Zadie Smith’s third novel is set in a fictive, pretty and very white university town outside Boston, where an academic crisis (centered around liberal Howard Belsey’s and conservative Monty Kipps’ intellectual and academic rivalry) as well as a domestic drama take place. Much like Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, the Belseys and the Kippses are two feuding families (and it is surely not incidental that Mr Kipps’ name is Montague) who are awkwardly brought together when Jerome Belsey falls ridiculously in love with Victoria Kipps; when, to make matters worse, the Kipps family moves into the Belsey’s neighborhood and when, notwithstanding their husbands’ rivalry, the two wives become friends, complicating the relations between their husbands and their children.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith, Penguin Books

But On Beauty isn’t just a family drama. It’s a reflection on beauty and the moral values that support our beliefs and actions; it sheds light on the ugly fact that beauty and ethics don’t always go hand in hand. Howard Belsey is intellectually suspicious of beauty, which he sees as a pretty masks that power wears. Yet this intellectual, theoretical suspicion  vanishes when Howard is faced to beauty in the form of a desirable female body, which makes him seriously morally flawed. Zadie Smith explores those complexities and contradictions with her unique literary voice, excelling at representing formal academic language as much as teenagers’ and rappers’ colloquialisms, making her novel the recipient of the most diverse and, pardon me for using this word I usually shun, authentic voices: trust me, you’ll want to read the dialogues out loud.

Finally, I cannot finish this mini-review without paying tribute to Kiki Belsey, the most touching, moving, pure, genuine and funny woman I’ve met in a book. Because she’s a fat Black woman who knows how to stand her ground when self-respect is at stake, she’s described by other characters as “an African queen” and “a strong woman”. Yet, the intimacy that the narrative voice shares with Kiki reveals a sensitive and sensible woman, not quite at ease, not quite fitting, in the white and intellectual environment. Her insecurities make her so endearing that you might find yourself weeping over her misfortunes and desperately wanting to hug her.

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