Academic journal article British and American Studies

Family Caught between Left and Right in Zadie Smith's on Beauty

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Family Caught between Left and Right in Zadie Smith's on Beauty

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Zadie Smith's first novel White Teeth (2000) catapulted her into a media frenzy. She was praised not only for her writing skills, but also for her beauty, youth and ethnicity (Tew 2010:39-40). A celebrity-oriented world desires its writers to be fascinating individuals. Zadie Smith was presented as a British literary sensation, making her debut at the beginning of the new millennium. She was seen as the voice of a "New England" (Tew 2010:19). Smith herself was not pleased with the emphasis that was put on her mixed-race origin (Tew 2010:17-18). By the time she published her third novel - On Beauty (2005), she had experienced the enormous pressure which comes with public attention and scrutiny. On Beauty was not greeted with widespread acclaim; some even found reasons for this in her celebrity status (Tew 2010:42).

The plot of On Beauty unfolds in and around the campus of a fictional university in America. For this reason, Smith's third novel belongs to the genre of academic novel, a small subgenre of contemporary fiction. The world of universities represents a world unto itself. They are often small close-knit communities where everything is magnified, more obvious and more difficult to hide. What makes this world even more interesting is the fact that the individuals in such microcosms are distinguished members of the society. Smith decides to tell us a story about one campus through two completely different families, the liberal Belseys and the conservative Kippses.

The liberal Belseys are a dual-earner family, a type of family which has become more common in today's society (Perry-Jenkins and Turner 2004:155). The conservative Kippses are a traditional nuclear family. Their contrasting worldviews make them seem very different from one another. The Kippses are introduced through Jerome Belsey's emails written to his father. Jerome is doing an internship with his father's professional archrival, Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian who lives in London with his wife Carlene and children, Victoria and Michael. He is absorbed by the Kipps household because it is "the negativized image of our (Belsey's) household" (Smith 2005:4). The Kippses are seen as a perfect traditional family and the Belseys are a mixed-race family who live in Wellington, a fictional college town, outside Boston. Kiki and Howard have three children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. Both Kiki and Howard feel detached from their background. Kiki, an African-American, feels uncomfortable because another black woman is paid to clean her house (11, 49), whereas Howard, a butcher's son, can "no longer gauge the luxuries of his own life" (25). Howard has grown apart from his sons. Jerome has become religious and silent (30), while Levi seems to be ashamed of his professor father (24) and speaks with a "faux Brooklyn accent" (11). The two families become neighbours when Monty Kipps starts working at Wellington. Despite their differences, these two opposing families are similar in many ways, because they face the same world and its temptations.

2. Family and family life

Family life and ideas of how a family should look have changed rapidly in the last decades. Traditionally, a family has been presented as a group of people who live together and are related by blood, marriage or adoption. In the 1950s, the ideal family became a nuclear family - the father, the breadwinner, lives together with his wife, who is a housewife, and their children. This idea excluded many families, who were subsequently seen as being less than perfect. Nevertheless, this type of family is still considered ideal by many people today, both in popular culture and in the academic world (McGraw and Walker 2004:176-177). During the '60s, '70s and '80s, many factors, such as the sexual revolution, the feminist movement and the fact that more and more women were working, changed the structure of marriage and family. The rates of divorce soared in the last decades of the 20th century and marriage was no longer "the pivotal subsystem within the family system" (Sabatelli and Ripoll 2004:79). …

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