On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Summer left Wellington abruptly…and Zora Belsey had that strange, late-September feeling that somewhere in a small classroom with small chairs an elementary school teacher was waiting for her. It seemed wrong that she should be walking towards town without a shiny tie and a pleated skirt, without a selection of scented erasers.
Zadie Smith was, for whatever reason, not the writer I expected her to be. Maybe I confused her with Zora Neale Hurston, or maybe I had pictured her as more pretentious or highbrow because I knew people in college who said her name the same way they would say “Faulkner” or “Forster.”
Zadie Smith in actuality is one of our times’ best chronicler of academia, race issues, feminism and American life. As Smith is English (not American) and did not go to an Ivy League School, perhaps her outsider perspective enables her to see the flaws of both of those social strata more clearly than any American Harvard-graduate author possibly could.
It’s also incredible to me that Smith can simultaneously pay homage to E. M. Forster, an English Edwardian author, while addressing issues that are so current and so relevant to present-day America. Even though her plot does owe a bit to Forster’s Howards End, Smith is an absolutely beautiful writer in her own right — her section on Mozart’s Requiem is so haunting that I got chills, even though I was reading it on a public bus.
Critics of Smith’s work have called her characters messy and her plot contrived. Her characters, I would argue, are more complex than sloppy, and if certain actions don’t seem to make sense, it’s likely because real people often don’t make sense. All of Smith’s characters felt so real that I could befriend them — with the exception of the guy from the South who was obsessed with PowerPoint presentations. I will say that there are maybe two occasions where an American character uses a distinctly English turn of phrase, but had I not known Smith was English, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
As for her plot being contrived, the same argument can be made for Howards End, and as Smith is clearly honoring Forster’s work, I would hesitate to blame her. This is most definitely a book worth borrowing, especially if you are in a Back to School kind of mood!