September 2005

The colorful complexities of human ties

By Zadie Smith
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In her third novel, following her smash debut White Teeth (written when she was only 21) and well-received sophomore effort Autograph Man, Zadie Smith takes readers inside the minds and hearts of the Belsey family. In this absorbing tale, Smith explores the fragile bonds that exist between husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and lovers and friends. She also provides a vivid portrayal of the sheltered and often claustrophobic world of academia.

Howard Belsey is a left-wing professor at Wellington, a small liberal arts college in a New England town of the same name. A white English intellectual, he is married to Kiki, a corpulent but beautiful black woman who works as a hospital administrator. Their marriage is in trouble; Howard has recently had an affair with a colleague, and Kiki is shattered, although loath to let anyone in on her devastation. Their three children are coping with issues of their own. Oldest son Jerome is recovering from an aborted romance with Victoria Kipps, daughter of Monty Kipps, Howard's zealously right-wing academic rival. Daughter Zora, herself an academically driven intellectual, suffers from feelings of physical inferiority. When she meets Carl, an extremely handsome, lower-class slam poet from Boston, she is determined to bring him into her world but does she want to save him or save herself? Levi, the youngest, is a teenage pseudo-thug and hip-hop fan who wants nothing more than to retain his street cred in the midst of his woefully upper-crust universe.

The story of the Belsey family and the people in their lives is skillfully woven. Particularly effective is the rendering of the unexpected friendship that unfolds between Kiki and Carlene Kipps, Monty's seriously ill wife. Smith's dialogue is colorful; she writes in sometimes over-the-top colloquial speech, encompassing everything from Caribbean to urban dialect. Her characters are seriously flawed, yet it is easy to care about them all—even the insufferable Howard. Fans of White Teeth will find much to love about this book.

Rebecca K. Stropoli writes from New York City.

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On Beauty

On Beauty

By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594200632

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