I’ve had a copy of ‘On Beauty’ by Zadie Smith on my shelf for ages but as it is based on ‘Howards End’ by E. M. Forster, I decided to read the latter first about six years ago as I usually prefer to have some knowledge of the source material when reading an adaptation or homage to another book. However, I didn’t get on with ‘Howards End’ at all and consequently I have neglected ‘On Beauty’ for a very long time, but after enjoying Smith’s latest novel Swing Time so much last year, I wanted to try what is arguably her finest book.
As it has been a while since I read ‘Howards End’, I remember very little about it other than the famous ‘only connect’ quote (coincidentally, this led me to discover the then little-known BBC4 quiz show of the same name so reading it wasn’t a complete waste of time). This meant that most of the Forster allusions in ‘On Beauty’ went straight over my head, but I now don’t think it’s essential to know ‘Howards End’ inside out in order to appreciate Smith’s novel which is highly enjoyable in its own right and has interesting things to say about the dynamics of race, gender, politics and family in the 21st century.
‘On Beauty’ follows the rivalry between two feuding families, the Belseys and the Kipps. Howard Belsey is a white liberal middle-aged English academic and Rembrandt scholar at a prestigious New England college. He has been married to his African-American wife Kiki for thirty years and they have three children, Jerome, Zora and Levi, who are finding their own identities as young adults. Howard’s career has stalled just as his nemesis, Monty Kipps, a black British conservative who is also a Rembrandt scholar, starts working at the same college. While Kiki forms a friendship with Monty’s wife Carlene, Howard has an affair with the Kipps’ daughter Victoria having already been unfaithful in the past.
I struggled with ‘Howards End’ because of its vagueness and while ‘On Beauty’ is similarly loose in terms of plot and is structured more as a series of interactions and set pieces, the characters are distinctive and memorable. The reviewers who awarded ‘On Beauty’ one star on Amazon seem to have missed the point that while the characters are not particularly likeable, Smith intentionally emphasises their hypocrisy and the disconnect between their stated beliefs and their actions. Smith’s other main strengths lie in satire and dialogue and while she effortlessly captures a range of diverse scenarios from a funeral in north-west London to Levi’s encounters with the Haitian community back in the States, she is particularly good at sending up the world of academia in liberal arts colleges, culminating in the excellent glee club scene.
‘On Beauty’ deserves its status as a modern literary classic. I might even give ‘Howards End’ another chance one day although I don’t know exactly when that might be…