Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

My long-promised review of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty appeared in the Sunday Oregonian. Here’s an excerpt:

Smith’s ear for dialogue remains one of her strongest skills as a writer. She is able to capture not just different accents or different registers, but also register switches within a character’s speech. Kiki, for example, sounds slightly different when she addresses her husband and children than when she talks to Claire, a prominent poet whose admirers Zora spitefully refers to as “Cult-of-Claire groupies.”

As in “White Teeth” and in the opening chapter of “The Autograph Man,” Smith’s depiction of fathers is well-observed and compelling, even tender. For all his philandering, his self-obsession, his over-intellectualizing, Howard remains lovable. “On Beauty” is itself an act of appreciation of beauty. A longtime E.M. Forster fan, Smith has structured her novel as an homage to “Howards End,” complete with similar opening lines, inherited houses, troublesome bequests and unexpected philandering.

At times, however, Smith strains under the weight of all the concerns she tries to address: The politics of academia, familial and personal identity, body image, campus life, ideological wars, etc. The result can seem somewhat unfocused, though far from lacking in beauty.

For those of you in Portland, mark your calendars: Zadie Smith will appear on Thursday, October 6th at a Powell’s event. (Note that the reading will be held at the First Unitarian Church. Come early…)