There isn’t a subject that Zadie Smith won’t touch in On Beauty, her splendid and bighearted new novel: race in America; the perils of intellectualism; the culture wars; growing old; the gut-busting absurdity of glee clubs. Smith uses the plot of E.M. Forster’s odd, radiant 1910 Howards End as the scaffolding for her own equally strange and sinuous tale of contemporary people trying to live good lives when everyone has a different idea of what that means. As with her messy, ambitious White Teeth, she tries to capture all the stuff of life between two covers, a virtually impossible task. But she makes such an admirable attempt you forgive her the occasional loose end.
Howard Belsey, a white, British-born professor at fictional New England-area Wellington College, has fallen into a predictable middle-aged funk: For 30 years, he has been happily married to Kiki, a voluble, earthy African-American hospital administrator. But Howard has recently had an affair with a colleague whose identity galls Kiki even more than the fact of the infidelity. ”My leg weighs more than that woman,” Kiki says. ”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 f—ing leprechaun?”
Size matters: Howard is trying to come to terms with Kiki’s new middle-aged heft, as is Kiki herself. ”Got bosoms, got back,” she says with apparent equanimity. But she is finding that everyone treats her differently, from her husband to the Haitian street vendors who can’t keep their eyes off her ”enormous, spellbinding” chest. Kiki — the novel’s most endearing, interesting character — hasn’t kicked Howard out, but their marriage hangs in limbo.
Meanwhile, the Belsey children are experiencing their own changes. Levi, at 15, has decided that to be authentically black you must wear a skull cap and ”ahks” questions. Zora is a mouthy, emotionally immature Wellington student prone to devastating crushes. Their naive, cerebral older brother, Jerome, has gone to England to intern with Monty Kipps, a prominent right-wing West Indian academic who stands for everything that Howard, a doctrinaire liberal, loathes.
Which, of course, makes him all the more alluring to Jerome, who announces in an e-mail: ”It’s very cool to be able to pray without someone in your family coming into the room and a) passing wind b) shouting c) analysing the ‘phony metaphysics of prayer.”’ He falls in love with Kipps’ daughter, Victoria, launching a complicated relationship between the families: While the husbands feud, their wives form a strong, almost instantaneous bond.
The mysterious, nonverbal connection between women comes straight from Howards End, as do a grab bag of motifs: a classical music concert; a fateful bequest; a lower-class interloper. While Smith adds her own twists, her plot is far less tidy, with narrative tributaries that trail off. Characters who seem crucial suddenly vanish, while others are insufficiently developed, notably Victoria, a sexually predatory knockout whose motives for seducing virtually every man she meets remain opaque. But these aren’t fatal flaws: This is a 443-page novel you wish were longer — much longer — so that Smith could deepen her rich, marvelous story.