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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: At Its Heart: An Enigma: ON BEAUTY, Zadie Smith, Penguin Press 9/05

In the beginning of On Beauty, Art History professor Howard Bersley reads several emails from his eldest son. Jerome is rebelling against his family by interning under his father’s archrival Monty Kipps. Howard never replies to his son’s emails. He does nothing, says nothing, and when Jerome announces his engagement to Kipps’ daughter Victoria, Howard turns the entire affair over to his African-American wife Kiki to handle. Eventually, Kiki bullies Howard into visiting the Kipps family to resolve the situation. He arrives at the Kipps home to perform his well-practiced dance of doing nothing and saying less while the Kipps family explodes all around him. What follows is a fast-paced, engaging family saga that starts with Jerome’s indiscretion with Victoria and ends with Howard making a shockingly similar mistake. Early on, Howard cheats on his wife of 30 years, Kiki, with a white female colleague.  His children deal with their parents’ marital difficulties in unique ways. 21-year old Jerome rebels against his atheist grinch-like father (yes, Howard actually bans Christmas from the Bersley household) and embraces Christianity. 19-year-old Zora, the precocious middle child attending her father’s college, is clearly her father’s daughter, attempting to become a major power broker on the faculty – but her real motive is to impress the incredibly sexy street rapper Carl. 16 -year-old Levi, by far the most lovable, sheds all evidence of his upper middle class upbringing and takes on the persona of a street hooligan. He then inserts himself into a group of Haitian immigrants, joining in their fight to bring equality to the Haitian people. As they deal with the consequences of their actions, all three remain aggressively moral, a loud response to their father’s continued silence regarding his own fairly public indiscretion. Kiki, easily the most intriguing and well-drawn character in the novel, is a woman with her own midlife crisis. She has gained a significant amount of weight, turning her into a voluptuous woman. She handles her new body awkwardly, noting that “if she were white, maybe it would only refer to sex, but she was not. And so her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting…Her body had directed her to a new personality…” As Kiki struggles to adjust to her new heft, she is set adrift by her husband’s infidelity. At first, she endures terrible anger and grief. Her arguments with Howard are frighteningly realistic, as we witness her vulnerability to Howard’s coldness. In an attempt to reconcile, Howard asks if they can “talk properly. Like human beings. Who know each other.” Kiki, still enraged at his affair, does “something she hasn’t done in years. She gives her husband the finger.” Howard’s response is indicative of his determined absence from the heart of their marriage. “In a faraway voice he said, ‘No…. This isn’t going to work?” Faced with a husband who moves about his house and his job in a series of determined inactions, Kiki hesitantly allows herself to live both with and without him. She forms a strange friendship with Kipps” wife, and begins to remove herself from her old life, gracefully letting go of her husband and children, replacing her need for their validation with a deepening self-acceptance.              Smith weaves a compelling story out of the sadness, strife, and sardonic humor that is Howard’s family. Indeed, she has a wonderful talent for wrapping the reader in well-chosen metaphors. Her writing balances perfectly between the lyrical and mundane, allowing the reader to appreciate the beauty of her images without feeling lost in the complexity of her prose. She also cleverly tosses in philosophical morsels regarding aestheticism and academic freedom. Howard’s characterization, however, feels out of place. Smith allows for all her characters – even minor ones – to enjoy detailed inner lives. Howard is the exception. He never once reflects on how he feels about others, or how they feel about him. Like his scene in the Kipps home, he strives to do and say as little as possible, and yet his immobility ironically drives the plot forward. In a wink to the postmodern tradition, he seems to have stumped the narrator. At the end of her author’s note, wherein Smith discusses the paintings that appear in the novel, her last line is a parting shot at her protagonist: “Howard thinks that Carl looks like Rubens’s Study of African Heads. I don’t agree.” Clearly, Smith chose not to write from the perspective of a fifty-seven year old philandering white man, but her neglect of his emotions, within a novel driven by the ways in which all the other characters feel about Howard, strikes a dissonant chord in the tale.While this does not detract from the novel as a whole, as the story builds to the end, one feels that a crucial viewpoint is missing in a narrative that so skillfully blends the viewpoints of many characters. Howard’s true feelings remain a mystery to the reader, and as for Smith — apparently she’s still arguing with him.

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