To me, reading isn’t just a pastime. Reading a good story can change my perception on many levels. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty most certainly did. It’s one of those stories I feel I can empathise with the struggle portrayed without having any personal connection to the story.
After English Professor Howard Belsey’s affair with a family friend and work colleague, his African-American wife Kiki is left questioning everything about herself and her life until the affair. She is riddled with self-doubt regarding her changing appearance, ageing, and her race. Her husband’s betrayal with a woman who is physically her polar opposite has decimated their declining marriage, brought family life to a grinding halt and his work life into disarray. The fragile nature of Howard and Kiki’s marriage is further undermined by Kiki’s friendship with Howard’s academic nemesis’ wife.
Smith’s language is colloquial but unequivocally engaging, it pierces through racial issues, love in many forms and never loses its sense of reality . Physical beauty is presented as a transient, fleeting and ultimately destructive. The academic, seemingly highbrow setting is punctured by the preoccupation with youth, beauty and sexual desires.
On Beauty is unique, sad, hilarious in parts, and very thought-provoking.