Writer Zadie Smith was just 24 when she published her first novel, the enormously successful White Teeth, in 2000. She became a literary superstar, selling Blnore than 1 million copies both in her native United Kingdom and the United States. The book was adapted for a Masterpiece Theater series on PBS. She followed it up with The Autograph Man, a book about the pitfalls of celebrity. And now, these few short years later, her third novel, On Beauty is in bookstores and already shortlisted for a top literary prize.
Unlike her previous novels, which were both based in her native Britain, On Beauty is a book based mostly in America, in a fictional college town outside Boston. It's a story that examines culture and class in a country that likes to pretend it has no class system. Smith takes a solid look at strains between upper- and lower-class Blacks, Caribbeans, and Brits, as well as conservatives and liberals. But On Beauty isn't a lecture on the racial-class divide. Instead, it's a hilarious comedy of errors, poking fun at petty jealousies, ego and identity. Smith diffuses the big issues of race and culture with wit. It's ironic, acerbic and intelligent at the same time.
Visiting Washington on her recent book tour, Smith talked about how the idea for the book came to her.
"I had a dream of this book, and I thought it was so terrific," she told the crowd at Olsson's bookstore. But then her husband informed her that the structure of the story sounded suspiciously like the one E. M. Forster used for his novel Howard's End. So Smith went with it, replacing Forster's Victorian characters with contemporary versions of her own.
The story is centered around two academic families: the liberal Belseys, who include the African American mother, Kiki, and the British White father, Howard, plus their children, and the conservative Kipps family from the Caribbean who come to reside in the same town. The two husbands are archrivals in the academic arena, both having published conflicting ideas about art, beauty and Rembrandt. Naturally, their children hookup romantically at the start of the novel. And that's only the beginning.
The really delicious part of On Beauty involves the Belsey daughter, Zora, in her sophomore year at the fictional Wellington College. She has her heart stolen by a young man named Carl, who isn't educated and is not in her social class. Carl is from the streets, into spoken word and basketball, and is literally dismissed from the Belsey household the first time he attempts to gain entrance. When Howard Belsey opens the door, he snubs the young man who's shown up, fresh from a game of hoop, to attend a family party. But when Zora meets Carl a second time (their first meeting involved their having accidentally exchanged CD players), the erotic sparks fly.
"I have a lot of respect for culture here in America," Smith told the bookstore audience. "In England, no one's even vaguely interested in affirmative action. …