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'Howards End,' her beginning

On Beauty A Novel Zadie Smith Penguin: 446 pp., $25.95

September 25, 2005|Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin is a regular contributor to Book Review and other publications.

Howard is exasperatingly theoretical, especially to his earthy wife. We gradually learn that Kiki has become more critical of her husband after catching him cheating on the eve of their 30th wedding anniversary. Howard finds himself trapped in the "purgatory forgiveness involves" as Kiki reevaluates their formerly close marriage, her husband's corrosive irony and her own life choices. With characteristic wit, the author pinpoints their differences: "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." She adeptly sums up Kiki's bitter disillusionment: "The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free."

Smith captures all these viewpoints and voices with an assured blend of sympathy and amused skepticism. Typical of the agility with which she conveys ideas and characters is her arch description of Howard's grandiose opening lecture in his 17th century art course. For the sixth year in a row, she tells us, Howard asks his students to "imagine prettiness as the mask that power wears. To recast Aesthetics as a rarefied language of exclusion.... 'Art is the Western myth ... with which we both console ourselves and make ourselves." Smith's punch line -- "Everybody wrote that down" -- gently mocks the students.

The joke is that Howard is writing a book on Rembrandt yet hates all representational art. He professes to abhor Mozart too, but he can't listen to the composer's music without falling apart. He is also a helpless sucker for female beauty. (Stupidly, he tries to defend his infidelity to his 250-pound wife by pleading aesthetic attraction.) Monty, for all his righteousness, is no better.

As good as she is with big ideas, Smith is even stronger at capturing family dynamics, the heartbreak of broken trust as well as the lovely connections between siblings. In a book filled with memorable passages, there is a wonderful scene in which the three Belsey kids meet by accident in Boston and clearly find "such a shelter in each other." The most devastating confrontation occurs not during the novel's somewhat contrived climax but when Howard slips away from a funeral in London to visit his elderly father and comes smack against the knee-jerk bigotry that sent him into a rage years earlier.

Smith's discussions on the role of art, beauty and ethics are larded with poetry by her husband, Nick Laird, and rap lyrics by her brother Doc Brown. There also are lush descriptions of paintings by Rembrandt and Jean Hyppolite, numerous literary references (some as small as the Alice Walker Barnes & Noble tote bag that Kiki carries) and paeans to Hampstead Heath, London cemeteries and practiced marital sex.

Evident throughout is Smith's droll humor, as when Howard orders a cab after his dismaying reunion with his father: "When it arrived, the driver's door opened and a young Turk in the literal sense leaned out and asked Howard a rather metaphysical question. 'Is it you?' " A throwaway line in another writer's hands, perhaps, but in Smith's, it shrewdly cuts to the core of her characters' -- and our -- central dilemma: Who are we? Like Forster, Smith goes a long way toward answering that difficult question. *

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