Details: (c) Zadie Smith 2005; Pub Penguin 2006; ISBN 0-141-01945-X
Verdict: On Beauty is an excellent read, with particularly strong characterization.
Reasons for reading it: I absolutely adored White teeth. Autograph man didn't live up to Smith's stunning debut, but it certainly wasn't bad except by comparison, so I was very willing to give Smith another try. And her latest novel got a lot of good buzz when it was published, so I put it on my to-read list.
How it came into my hands: Brighton charity shops.
I found On Beauty extremely readable, even though it is a fairly dense book with a lot more characterization than dramatic action. But I found I was squeezing out extra reading time even when I should have been doing other things, and it's emotionally a very rewarding read without requiring any apparent effort. It's basically about the collapse of a long-standing marriage because of the husband's infidelity, which is not the most original of topics, though Smith undoubtedly handles it well. I think it's probably only to be recommended to someone who likes that kind of novel; there's a bit more to it than that, but not much.
The extra bit is primarily that it's very explicitly and almost aggressively a book about race. It's about race in the same way that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (starring Zadie Smith's namesake Will Smith!) is about race. I think Smith can get away with writing like this because she's made such a point of marketing herself as being mixed race, but it's very valuable that she is able to say things that a white author probably wouldn't get away with, and which seem (to me as a fairly ignorant outsider) to be pretty cogent. It's also about how warm fuzzy liberalism isn't enough to solve racial problems. For example, there's one subplot which looks as if it's going to turn into the horrible cliché of a beautiful white teacher saving a poor deprived black kid through the power of education and her purity of heart, but instead ends up undermining that cliché.
I think the fact that On beauty is didactic is a weakness, but at least the point it is making is a subtle one. It does feel a bit as if Smith wanted to discuss some political ideas, and decided to make up a story to illustrate or sugar her point. But her parable is a well-crafted one, and she at least takes it as a given that her readership already grasp the point that racism is bad (and so are sexism and xenophobia and class prejudice). So the didacticism is a minor downside, rather than something that spoils the whole book.
What really carries the book is the very high quality of the characterization. I really cared about all the characters (with just a few exceptions, such as Vee Kipps, who just seems like a bad stereotype of a gold-digging slut), who seem like plausible people (not perfect Mary-Sues or their close cousins, people who are basically wonderful but have a Dramatic Flaw). Zora and Levi are good portaits of teenagers, and there's a good balance between being in their heads and seeing them as the older characters perceive them. The central couple, Howard and Kiki, are particularly memorable and well-drawn. Howard is not at all admirable, not only a philanderer but also thoughtless, cynical and mediocre, and in spite of that I really cared about him. The portrayal of his destruction of their marriage is extremely vivid, the way they can't really break the habit of affection in spite of Howard's unforgivable behaviour, the way that Kiki is in a complete double bind because any slightly proportional reaction to Howard's infidelity looks ridiculous and causes him to think less of her.
On Beauty has rather more focus than White teeth, and I think that's only partially a good thing. On beauty may be a more mature book, but it's also a more conventional book. I didn't quite understand what was going on with the whole homage to EM Forster's Howard's End, but that's probably because it's been a long while since I read the latter.