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on beauty

zadie smith has, over the course of a 3 novel career, developed a devoted following.

i am not one of those devotees.

i bought her first novel, white teeth, and read it over a long period of time. i am the kind of person who does not put a book down until i finish it. i found it to be clever, imaginative, but not terribly compelling.

her second novel, the autograph man, got by me without me noticing it. had never even heard of it until i began to hear the buzz about her third novel, on beauty. which i saw at target on black friday, when i went to go buy my lovely new microwave (stainless steel, yay!). i bought the book, because i wanted to give her a second try. because i could see she had writing talent, because i was wondering if on beauty might make a greater impression on me.

it did not. on beauty, though it received rave reviews, was ultimately unconvincing to me as a story. on beauty tells the tale of two families: the liberal belseys, white english father, (southern) black american mother, and their three young adult, american born and raised children (2 boys and a girl); and the conservative kippses, a (caribbean) black english father & mother, a son, and a daughter. zadie smith is a biracial, caribbean, englishwoman herself, so she certainly has some insights into varied worlds.

but there was nothing american about her american characters. their dialogue and thoughts read like what she imagines americans speak/think like. which is to say, it didn't sound american. and much of the action of the book takes place in the u.s. it would be one thing to write an american tourist family as secondary or periphery characters in london...then i could relegate the authenticity of the american characters to a secondary or periphery place. but these were main characters...the belseys occupy the lion's share of the narrative, so it seemed to me that they should be as authentic as possible. their vocabulary, their phraseology, the way they interacted with each - particularly with their parents - did not seem american to me. yet the narrator made sure to frequently comment on their americanness. this disconnect was jarring. after all, the back cover summary says the book is supposed to be about the culture wars that define our age. the culture should, i would think, be more accurately captured.

for instance, an argument seen between the belsey daughter and carl thomas, a young black from "the wrong side of tracks" (to use the words of papa kipps in the novel). daughter belsey has been doing her best to get carl's attention through lobbying for him to be able to take classes at the university she attends. but carl's not paying the kind of attention to her that she would desire. she brings up all her lobbying efforts, and he says:

"am i meant to be grateful?"

a young, black american man, from "the wrong side of the tracks" as they say, would not ever respond in such a way. it may seem a little quibble, but when the characters sound the same, it ended up undermining the idea of a culture war. mama belsey did not, to me, exhibit the southern woman qualities that the narration assured me she had. and although she was supposed to have broken away, somewhat, from her roots, the moments she was supposed to have returned to them rang false to me. except for one scene at the end...

it also seemed curious to me that the young belseys did not all seem interested in claiming their biracial identity. they either seemed to claim no racial identity at all, or they claimed blackness. growing up privileged (their father an art history at a presitigous new england college, attending prep school and prestigious colleges themselves, spending time in various cities around the world) , it would seem that this would logically present itself as more of an internal issue for them.

as for the plot itself, it wasn't unbelievable. it was a lively, entertaining read, and certainly ambitious. just not terribly spot on, as the british say.

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i had to comment on this.

i thought white was terribly entertaining (i think in cliches)...so i bought on beauty expecting more of the same, but better...

her attempt to capture the african-american voice was SOOOOO off. OMG. it pissed me off and it was insulting to me. i know i'm not from boston, but having come from an african-american family with southern roots, i would expect to see SOMETHING of myself that i would recognize in the book...and nothing.

and all of her characters are caricatures of some cliche...the hapless poor chubby white man made good (that can't help himself)...the "strong black woman" who isn't very academic but has common sense in heaps...the christian virgin misfit white sheep of the family...the ugly duckling daughter...the beautiful swan daughter in the other family...the dude from the "wrong side of the tracks" who is smarter than everyone else...the minstrel youngest son performing blackness a la mtv...

the dialogue of the youngest son and carl was the WORST.

back to how this is insulting...i feel like the only reason she dared to even ATTEMPT to capture the "african-american voice" is because she's black...and that is the only reason the book was so acclaimed...

in conclusion, i think that book was ridiculous.

it's really good to see that i wasn't the only one who wasn't feeling the book. it was just not as brilliant as people make it out to be. and yeah, it is rather insulting that she gets to get away with these caricatures because she is a black woman writer. but that doesn't mean she has any idea what she is writing about. makes me wonder if critics were scared to actually criticize the book for fear of coming off as racist. but i would just think they were good readers.

not long after i read the book, i came across an interview with smith where she said that she just didn't really worry whether or not her characters were quite authentic. i think she should have.

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