Recommended Reads: On Beauty

“He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political. She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.”

After reading On Beauty it occurred to me that I hadn’t read anything like that before. It is simple yet complicated, dealing with basic aspects of human lives and relationships, but also race, religion, culture and politics. Sounds a little heavy, I know, but the peppering of comic moments, overcooked academic rivalries and the happy/sad pendulum that swings repeatedly back and forth gives the story an irresistible flow.

The Belsey family consists of Howard, a white, English academic, his African American wife Kiki, and their children Jerome, Zora and Levi. Their lives seem simple enough, but even in a family that prides itself on being liberal and unburdened by issues such as race and religion, problems of this nature inevitably rear their ugly head.

Howard is a wonderful mix of very intelligent and slightly stupid – he’s trying his best to be attentive after an indiscretion with one of his university colleagues (a skinny and petite white woman – the exact opposite of Kiki). Jerome takes up Christianity and Levi has desires to further explore his “authentic” black culture, viewing his own background as being a little too white to allow him to fully understand his identity. And when Howard’s professional nemesis, the Trinidadian Sir Monty, moves over from Britain with his family and takes up a job at the university, mild irritation turns to obsessive hatred.

Comic moments come from all of these situations, as well as some really heartfelt scenes, particularly from Kiki, as she struggles to come to terms both with Howard’s affair and the notion that she might not be the type of woman he really wants, or ever wanted. The friendship she forms with Monty’s wife mirrors this betrayal, and it leaves the reader wondering if they can ever get back to the way they used to be.

“Everywhere we go, I’m alone in this… this sea of white. I barely know any black folk any more, Howie. My whole life is white. I don’t see any black folk unless they be cleaning under my feet in the fucking café in your fucking college. Could you have found anybody less like me if you’d scoured the earth? . . . My leg weighs more than that woman. What have you made me look like in front of everybody in this town? You married a big black bitch and you run off with a fucking leprechaun?” 

Part of me knew that any review I would write about this book wouldn’t do it justice, and I think I was right. It is broad and expansive in its subject matter and diverse cast of characters, but is also quite insular in being focussed so intently on the exploits of these families. Witty and engaging – you will just have to read it for yourself to find out how much.

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