I think the best literature is that which attempts to bring the basic human experience to light. I know that there is a different story for every individual person on this big ball of dirt, but the inner workings of all 6.5 million of them are not terribly different – only the circumstances. We all love, hate, cry, laugh, eat, sleep and struggle. The best writers can tell you things about yourself and your fellow human beings that you didn’t know you already knew. On Beauty by Zadie Smith is one of those.
On Beauty is the story of a family. There are lots of details about this family I could tell you – the mother is a black Americanwoman from the south and the father is a white Englishman. The husband is a professor of Art Criticism who is very cerebral, the wife is a hospital administrator who is very emotional. They have three children who are smart and funny and very, very different. They live in the Boston area. The children are all in their late teens-early 20s. The marriage is going through a rough patch.
But those are just facts. They are sharply depicted but merely the backdrop on which this novel is painted. The title is On Beauty, and that beauty comes in lots of flavors here, but they ultimately lead back to the central beauty – love. Not sappy romantic love – real-life, hard-core, everyday all day love. Husbands, wives, children, siblings, parents, family, friends. The love that ties them together, causes them pain and heals their wounds. It wrenches the heart and makes it new. Smith shows us how love looks – how it cannot exist without pain and forgiveness and clarity and commitment.
In case I’ve been unclear up to this point, let me just state for the record – I love this book. I love it for a dozen reasons – the writing is fabulous, the family dynamics are powerfully and painfully accurate in detail and texture. It takes place on a college campus full of over-educated brainiacs who use the ‘cancer of their intellect’ to avoid facing their emotions (as I did for much of my life). All its characters are beautifully flawed human beings. But the reason this book will remain on my shelf forever (now that I finally own it) is because of one passage.
I read this book several years ago (it was published in 2005) and wrote this passages down in a journal I have for quotes that resonate powerfully within me. This one is a favorite out of those – one that, while I can’t quote it word-for-word, I never forget is in there.
The three siblings in the book (aged 16 to 22) have just bumped into each other serendipitously on a street corner, and to celebrate they go have coffee together. The oldest brother, Jerome – just back from college for the holidays – is basking in the happy glow of being with his siblings:
Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel – before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets. After a few years, Levi arrived: space was made for him; it was as if he had always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth. He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.
Makes me tear up every time I read it. This passage made me feel guilty for not giving my son siblings. It makes me want to pick up the phone and call my sisters and tell them I love them. I’ve never read anything that comes close to portraying how being a sibling feels to me. And I want to thank Zadie Smith for that gift, and share it with all of you.