Out now: On Beauty

Zadie Smith’s much-anticipated third novel is released in the United States today. Described as a ‘campus novel,’ On Beauty is about two academic families with opposing views on everything. The Kippses are British and conservative Christians while the Belseys are American and unabashed liberals. It doesn’t help matters that the patriarchs also have distinctly opposing views about art in general, and Rembrandt’s work in particular. The story is set in motion by an affair, break-ups and make-ups, coincidences and incidents. In her acknowledgments, Smith, a longtime Forster fan, says that all her fiction is indebted to him and that she “wanted to repay the debt with homage.” The novel bears some similarities with Howards End (borrowing from it, for instance, an opening line.)

A controversy ignited last week over comments Smith supposedly made to New York magazine (among them, that England is “a disgusting place.”) Smith strikes me as someone who is much too grounded (not to mention too smart) to make such statements (statements that were obviously edited down). As is typical these days, the report was picked by the Times, the Telegraph, the BBC and elsewhere. Among the blogs, the Lit Saloon provided a stern response, while Maud Newton reported hearing from Smith herself that she was objecting to the reports. Maud also provided a link to a BBC4 interview, in which Smith said that the article had made her “weepy” and that she “never said that.” I just hate how the media love to build people up only to tear them down.

Reviews of On Beauty so far have been fairly good. Publishers’ Weekly and Kirkus both gave it starred reviews. Over at the NY Times, the redoubtable Michiko Kakutani appears to like it:

Like Forster, Ms. Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice – at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between – and in these pages, she uses that voice to enormous effect, giving us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane.

But the Boston Globe‘s Gail Caldwell is more guarded in her praise:

Smith has the gift of writing crackerjack dialogue: Her ear is fine and mutable, and she can do street jive and breakfast banter as easily as she does the interminable faculty meeting. But ”On Beauty” is too long-winded. Its actions, external and interior, don’t always warrant its pages and pages of speech or description, which can start to feel superfluous and tangential after a while. Still, this is a rollicking and heartfelt story with endurance at its center.

I’m nearly done reading the book and will have a proper review up here (or somewhere else, shhh) in a couple of weeks.