On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

If this novel hadn’t been for book club, I would have put it down after fifty pages or so. I simply couldn’t work up any interest in what happened, mostly because of the way the story jumped from one character to another, not staying with anyone long enough to do more than sketch out his/her character and story. By way of contrast, in Small Island Andrea Levy manages multiple viewpoints very well but she limits herself to four and stays with each one for chapters at a time. Here, having my attention dragged away from a character every few pages made it impossible for me to care about any of them.

Apparently there is no main character. The person we start with, Jerome, is promising and his situation interesting, but then—aside from a couple of walk-throughs—he disappears for the rest of the book. I also would have liked to hear more about his brother Levi, who again is beautifully set up and then abandoned. Or their mother who gets two or three good scenes. Or Carl, the young poet. Smith has come up with a plethora of potentially intriguing characters; she could have written an entire book about any one of them.

Another reason the book dragged was the triteness of the situation. Please. I am so sick of middle-aged men’s angst when they cheat on their wives with another woman and/or a student. My hopes for a different perspective from this young writer were dashed when she chose to present those scenes through the eyes of—yes—the cheating middle-aged man. I can’t tell if the author adequately captures a point of view so foreign to her; the man certainly sounds like all the other cheating middle-aged men in the canon of American Lit.

The sections set in England come alive in a way that the rest of the book does not. The description of Hampstead Heath in particular is fabulous. Settings on our side of the pond do not work so well. For example, the family’s house is described simply as “a typical New England house” yet it is clearly neither a triple-decker nor a Cape Cod nor anything else particular to the region. And the occasional misplaced British idiom voiced by an American character is further distracting.

There was another reason I hung on to the end. Having just written an essay on beauty, I was hoping for some interesting insights or shrewd questions about the subject, something a little more than the observation that men like to have sex with beautiful girls or that beautiful girls want to be appreciated for more than their looks even as they make use of them. Smith is certainly capable of going deeper: she gives us a brief but powerful description of a shy student’s thoughts about two pictures. Unfortunately, that is the student’s only appearance.

Another scene I loved involved another student revealing to a professor how students use references to tomatoes to describe their classes. Hilarious. And some of the family scenes, such as the mayhem getting everyone out the door in the morning, ring true. Smith uses body language well: an insecure young woman tottering to a party on high heels, a couple positioning themselves on a staircase while conversing. She succeeds, too, at capturing the feel of much of today’s media with all the frenetic jump cuts and samplings (a chunk of Forster, some Roth, a little Cheever). However, in doing so, she sacrifices the depth and multi-dimensionality that make characters and their stories come alive.

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