Howard Belsey is a middle-aged professor teaching at a university, Wellington, that is clearly made up, but also very elite; Howard himself, however, is rapidly becoming a failure between his inability to finish his book and his inability to keep his marriage together after an affair. His family consists of his wife, Kiki, a large black woman who is constantly aware of her race and lack of academic pretensions but who is particularly warm, generous, and loving, his children, Jerome, a recently converted Christian who is disgusted by his father’s affair, Zora, an aspiring poet who tries too hard and wants to be what she is not, and Levi, ashamed of his upper-middle-class family and seeking to rediscover his black heritage by pretending to be from the poorest area in Boston. Directly opposed to the Belseys are the Kipps family, complete with more successful academic father, vague but loving mother, and rebellious children. When the Kippses move to Massachusetts, just down the street from the Belseys, their rivalries collide in a fascinating exploration of race, politics, class, and love.
I really had no idea what to expect from this novel. I had heard mediocre reviews almost everywhere; knowing that there are flaws in a book makes it very easy to put off time and time again. When I started a real effort to read the oldest books in my collection, On Beauty was up there. Those mediocre reviews, it turned out, were to my advantage, because despite my negative expectations I found myself enjoying this book very much. Through Howard and Kiki’s relationship in particular, I really enjoyed how Smith took a good long look at love, marriage, and the problems inherent therein. Obviously, I hope most people don’t have to cheat on their spouses to realize their value; I just thought it was interesting and a bit sad that even though Howard completely loved his wife, he still found himself straying. Not excusable, but perhaps the first book I’ve read that focused on such a tender issue.
Through the character of Levi (and Kiki, to an extent but not as much), the book also examines racism and black heritage. Levi is actually ashamed of his mostly-white neighborhood. He feels that his mother and siblings have thrown away their heritage and he’s on a quest to find the street again, dressing peculiarly, adopting a very strange slang language, and befriending recent immigrants whose cause he immediately begins to champion. As a constrast the novel has Carl, who despite coming from Levi’s imitated background embraces his ability to expand his knowledge as soon as he is given a chance. Carl’s eventual exit from the novel highlights a severe problem for the intelligent who are disadvantaged by income or race.
That isn’t to mention the political tensions between Kipps and Belsey, the ideals of academics – only students who can pay or can we allow in poor students with extraordinary talents? – and the irreparable harm that a breakdown of trust can cause in relationships. Even deeper, Smith uses this novel to think about beauty, especially Kiki’s inner and outer beauty despite the fact that she doesn’t fit the stereotypes and doesn’t fit in with most of the other characters. It comes from somewhere deeper, some part of her personality, and I loved that. This is meant to be a satire (in some ways, this is obvious in the pure ridiculousness of some of the characters’ actions) and I think I failed at recognizing that, but I did enjoy what I got out of this one. I’m glad that I have White Teeth on my TBR pile.