“The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.”
I read that line as I was devouring a bowl of $0.79 ramen, tucked into bed after a closing bartending shift and I yelped “YES” even though I have never been in love myself, but have definitely gone on enough dates to feel the opposite of liberated. I have had Zadie Smith on my list of authors to read for years. I took a Women’s Fiction class my senior year of college and On Beauty was on the reading list, but my class never reached it because almost every person in the class never did their assigned reading (I did every single one) and my professor ended up chopping the syllabus in half. I read phenomenal books by Roxane Gay, Maaza Mengiste, Nalo Hopkinson, and other Black women, but missed out on Zadie. After recently acquiring a library card following my move to Atlanta from Madison, I stumbled upon Zadie in the African American lit section and knew it was time.
I knew basically nothing going into the book and completely ignored the synopsis, which I believe led to the first 100 pages being a little brutal for me. There is a time jump that left me virtually shrugging my shoulders in confusion for dozens of pages. One hundred pages in, I was irrevocably invested in the lives of the Besley and Kipps families. The story takes place in the fictional university town of Wellington, just outside of Boston. The Besleys are a mixed-race family—Howard, a white Englishman and atheist university professor; Kiki, the gorgeous and shapely African-American wife; and their children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Spanning years, Howard has a nemesis across the globe by the name of Monty Kipps, who is also a professor and a Trinidadian living in Britain with his sickly wife Carlene, and their children Victoria and MIchael. The oldest Besley son, Jerome, takes an internship under the ultra-conservative and faith-focused Monty, thus snowballing the intertwinement between the two families and the chaos that follows when the Kipps eventually move to Wellington.
I do not want to give more of the plot as I feel I would litter you with spoilers and I want you to uncover the delusional behavior on your own, because I want everyone to read this book. I think back to when I was in high school and I was assigned to read Great Expectations, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Catcher in the Rye. Books that we were meant to analyze in multiple fifty-minute class periods filled to the brim with kids who hated to fucking read because we were assigned these asinine books that were so singularly focused on white, male issues of centuries past and nothing more. Zadie Smith was a ginormous breath of fresh air because, in four hundred and forty-three pages, she forced me to analyze the intersecting identities and privileges of race, gender, class, academia, physical beauty, and religion. The fact that my classmates and I, along with thousands of students across the entire country, are denied stories like this in school that would offer so much internal reflection is devastating. The way Zadie was able to seamlessly weave the disenfranchisement and privilege of each of the overtly-flawed characters was extraordinary and the ending that tied all of the character’s crossroads together was the literary embodiment of a chef’s kiss.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the story was the examination of performativity (shoutout to Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino that also perfectly deconstructed this) and the appearance of knowledge as a mask for patriarchy and racism. The patriarchal power structure was apparent throughout the novel and manifested itself explicitly through both the male characters and the academic institution itself. Universities have long been a cog in the machine of white supremacy and rape culture. Now that we have completely monetized secondary education due to capitalism, universities cave towards the desire to consistently center whiteness. I remember being a student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and saw first-hand how whiteness dominated the pedagogy. Throughout my entire tenure at college, I had one Black professor (in the women’s lit class I discussed above). Her name was Taiyon Coleman and she was the best professor I ever had the privilege of learning under. She openly and honestly discussed what it was like being a Black woman in academia and I remember she brought in author and educator Shannon Gibney, author of an amazing book by the name of See No Color that gave life to the experience of transracial adoption. Coleman and Gibeny’s class discussion centered around Gibney’s experience as a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She told us of her struggle working in an educational system where she found herself constantly being reprimanded from the board due to raising issues in her class with systemic racism. Her white, male students filed countless complaints against her because they found her discussion to be “uncomfortable.” To make things worse, her white colleagues were hesitant and reluctant to speak out in support of her. Universities are monolithically white places that treat colonial knowledge as the only knowledge and use Black professors as tokens in their diversity and inclusion efforts and offer minimal support when they actually try to use their Black experience in their curriculum.
Sometimes while reading I felt as though I wasn’t quite qualified intellectually to be reading it. And then I realized that Zadie Smith did this on purpose through Monty Kipps and Howard Beasley’s dialogue. Their monologues were often riddled with pretentious ramblings and over-the-top performances of intellectualism. It gave me so much to think about in terms of how often intellectualization is linked with masculinity. As a woman, I have often had to bear witness to men on Bumble dates put up a constant facade in trying to prove how smart they are to me. Not only are they trying to prove their intellect is superior to what it actually is, they are also trying to prove that they are undoubtedly intellectually superior to me. Kipps and Beasley were perfect show dogs in Smith’s novel for the lengths men will go to for fear of feeling emasculated.
I could truly write a dissertation on the exploration of identity from this novel—the contrast between Kiki and Victoria as Black women of differing spectrums of Eurocentric beauty standards, Zora’s classist appeal to act as a savior to Carl, Howard’s relationship with his father’s ignorance, Monty’s inclination to prove himself as one of the ‘good’ Black men who doesn’t need Affirmative Action to be successful, Kiki’s experience as a large Black woman married to a man with a wandering eye in a majority white suburb, Levi’s desire to gain insight into a Black experience that is unlike the one he was raised in. This novel is an onion and with every reread, I could find another layer I missed. There is so much to peel back from this story. So read this book, stand in your kitchen, and let Zadie shake you by the shoulders and ask you who would you be if you weren’t pretending to be who everyone thought you were supposed to be?
By Zadie Smith
443 pages. 2005.
Buy it here.