As promised, I'm returning with a review of Zadie Smith's On Beauty. Now the truth is that I was not entirely impressed with her first book, White Teeth, despite all the positive reviews it has received. As I recall, my impression was of a novel that tried to do too much with too many people and fell just short enough to leave me feeling a bit disgruntled. Not bad enough to say it's not good, but not compelling enough to recommend it. Therefore, it was only after a good (and critical) friend recommended On Beauty that I gave it a shot.
On Beauty is, in a nutshell, the story of a family coping with pain, transition, and each other. The details are plentiful and if you're looking for them, there are plenty of reviews that will fill you in. It a funny and sad and moving book with characters that you'll find yourself loving and hating. It's intense, colorful, and full of real emotions, especially the understanding and forgiveness we struggle to extend to the people we love even when we would sometimes rather stay mad at them.
The writing is also very good. Smith uses a little trick that I don't recall encountering anywhere else. In the text there are tensions and even words that the reader doesn't pay attention to until pages later when they've been brought to light by some character's comment. For example, the woman who refers to her husband as her husband. The reader thinks nothing of it, until the woman points out that she's using the word "husband." Suddenly, it becomes apparent that the third person in this conversation did not know that the couple had gotten married, that their marriage was a surprise. It gave me the same feeling as being at a dinner party with people you don't know very well. On the way home or days later when you're gossiping with your girlfriend, you finally understand why that blond woman was being so mean to that nice dark haired man. There is so much about people that we do not know and that we cannot know. Instead of giving the reader the feeling that they are privileged to information that the characters don't have, this little device reminds the reader that the characters have secrets, too.
I would certainly recommend On Beauty to anyone looking for a good read. It's a bit intimidating as far as heft goes, but it's a great read.