In this case I am still not quite sure what to think about the title, although this book indeed contains a very perceptive and subtle vision of beauty through the often thick fog and noise of family relationships. This is the second of Zadie Smith's novels that I have read, after her hilarious and brilliant first rendering, called White Teeth. I still have her second novel, Autograph Man, sitting on a shelf waiting for its moment. Smith's mixed background and experiences are thoroughly used in On Beauty: a Jamaican mother and an English father, university life in England and on the East Cost of the USA, suburban London, the contrasting worlds and languages of the campus and of rappers all come to play through the looking glass of relationships in and around a family of mixed race. Yet this novel uses these elements as a source of authenticity for the situations and dialogues, not just as a powdering of personal experience.
White Teeth is a riot of a book, describing totally outrageous situations with a verve and talent for dialogue that I found brilliant and yet true. It is one of the funniest novels I have read, but there is much more to it that the comedy of the situations and the dialogues. Having lived in multi-cultural areas of London, for me it was sometimes like returning to situations and characters that I had known or could have known, even if they get well stretched for the purpose of comedy.
On Beauty is much calmer and, in a sense, more ambitious as it attempts to deal with the long-term relationships of couples and the questions that inevitably arise in these, compounded by the complexity of mixed cultures coming together, and the tensions of daily life in families which include widely differing personnalities. What is very impressive is Smith's capacity to hit the right tone in her dialogues, whatever the protagonists be. And, in this, to set a mood which illustrates different facets of her characters. I did not come away from reading On Beauty wanting to live with these people, but I did go a long way to understanding them better and recognising through them aspects of behaviour all around me. I supose that this could be the sense of the title, after all.
Please read on ....