Yesterday evening, I finished Zadie Smith's On Beauty and was left in awe. Then, I was smacked with the realization that Smith is only two years older than me. This left me feeling a mix of emotions, still awe-struck, but also a bit down. I can't imagine having even a small fraction of the writing talent that Smith possesses. And by the way, the novel was published in 2005. Sigh.
Smith's novel, On Beauty, is a multi-family social class drama set against the backdrop of a liberal arts college in Boston.
I was initially pulled into the story by it's vibrant characters, rich subtext and scathing humor. However, having not read any reviews regarding this novel, I didn't have the light-bulb moment until mid-way through the book. I kept thinking that elements of the story seemed very familiar and then it hit me.
This is a retelling of E. M. Forster's Howards End.
Howards End is my favorite novel and favorite movie. How did I not realize this sooner?
I didn't notice it, because Smith is so slick with how she worked it in. Primarily, she changed the context, which on the surface made the story seem like it was about race. It is about race, in part, but even more key, it is about social class.
Smith sets her retelling primarily in America and most of the characters are of African heritage. This ups the stakes from Forster's drama about white people living in England. However, both stories are very much about the differences among social classes and the rules of their interactions affecting the characters in both stories.
Smith levels the playing field by spreading her characters amongst all of the social classes, irrespective of racial identity. Race is a factor, as the characters are living in a primarily white college town and they struggle to create an identity that honors both their social status and race. All of the characters are in a constant identity struggle and unsure of their proper place according to society. The characters are bound to their social status and have a difficult time discussing their identity issues with those in other social classes. There is a huge divide amongst the characters that is based on class, rather than race.
The characters in On Beauty don't necessarily measure up neatly with those in Howards End. This is one of the notable and brilliant aspects of Smith's writing. It's not completely transparent.
Some of the characters match based on sensibilities. An example is the character of Victoria, the daughter of the wealthiest family in Smith's novel. She matches with Jacky Bast, the poorest character in Forester's novel. The two characters both struggle to gain a little power and generally are left to the mercy of those around them. They both have a great deal of pride that gets knocked down, leaving them weak and helpless. the characters completely mirror each other, but not in obvious way.
This mismatch of the characters from the two novels is repeated throughout Smith's story, making it a really compelling read. I was hooked on the book before realizing the parallels, but once I became clued in, I found the story impossible to put down.
On top of that, Smith writes a story that is filled with so many nuances and great discussion topics. I felt like I should be reading this for a class and taking notes, rather than a pleasure read. This book begs to have a term paper written about it. I feel like by pleasure reading it, I didn't absorb all of the layers.
Speaking of writing a term paper, the novel's college setting and having several of the main characters as academics, is another level to the story. It is in this arena that Smith brings out her biting humor and exposes many hypocrisies, both with her characters and with society in general. Smith had a keen idea to move Forester's story of social classes on to a college campus.
On a personal note, I was never so struck by social class until I attended a liberal arts college and realized that everyone around me came from a similar family financial background. It's bizarre to grow up in an area rich with diversity and then go to a college where there is so much sameness. Smith nailed it.
It has been a long time since I have read a novel that made me so excited. Reading Smith's novel has made me fall in love with writing again and all of it's possibilities.
Just brilliant. Read it.