Saturday, November 15, 2008

On Beauty

First, NaNoWriMo update: Halfway through the month (Nov. 15), halfway through the novel (25,054 words). Week two was a killer, and I'm not sure the final 15 days will be much easier, but I'm proud of where I am.

Now, I've been a bit consumed by my own novel lately, but that doesn't mean I'm not still reading on the bus or at lunch. I've been reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I haven't read any of her novels before (I heard White Teeth was good - anyone?), but I bought her book on the sale table at B&N a while back. It's an interesting story, a bit boring in places, long-winded passages that I'm sometimes tempted to skim, but some good characters. Not necessarily good in their actions, but good as in characters with depth. Here's the book's synopsis:

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

Set on both sides of the Atlantic, Zadie Smith's third novel is a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people's deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.
I can tell Smith is a talented writer. Certain methods of her writing or turns of phrase remind me of Charles Dickens even. She sometimes acts like a narrator, telling the reader directly that we'll be jumping through time or letting us in on an unknown fact/secret about a character. However, the book is just OK for me. Some of the characters are just despicable, and others don't even seem like they could be real. I'm almost done, and I will finish it, but because I'm not completely enthralled, that might be why it's taking me so long to finish.


Anonymous said...

I read White Teeth just after it came out in paperback, and loved it. I was excited for her second book, The Autograph Man, but didn't even finish reading it due to the same issues you described in your post. I think she has a fourth book out now, too.

A. said...

Yeah, I just can't seem to get through On Beauty. I'm not all that interested anymore about where these characters are going. I actually worked through lunch today - when I'm reading a book I like, that NEVER happens!

I may try White Teeth though - thanks for the suggestion.