On Beauty is a novel about an interracial family from Wellington, a fictional college town just outside of Boston. Howard, the father, is a white, self-absorbed British art history professor, a lot like of Jeff Daniels’ pompous academic from The Squid and the Whale. His wife Kiki is an overweight black nurse from Floria who has never felt entirely comfortable in her husband’s circle, nor in the lily white liberal community that they call home. The eldest son, Jerome, rebels by becoming a Christian and befriending his father’s professional rival. The daughter, Zora, idolizes her father and longs to become part of his academic kingdom. The youngest son, Levi (in my head, his name is inexplicably pronounced like levee instead of like the jeans) loves hip-hop, tells everyone that he’s from Roxbury, and befriends a group of Haitian immigrants. The story focuses on the Besleys and the people who pass through their lives, with the themes of family, relationships, race, and identity prominently running throughout the novel.
The writing itself isn’t anything spectacular, and even though it’s a nitpick, the editors should have done a better job Americanizing the language of the British author. For example, American teenagers do not receive messages on their pagers, they get texts on their cell phones. There is also one incongruous chapter written from the point of view of a student in Howard's class that probably should have been omitted. The strength of the novel, however, lies in the characters themselves. Kiki and the Besley children (especially Levi) are all likeable and believable, and the alternation between skirmish and solidarity among the siblings is an authentic look at family life. Howard, however, is harder to pin down. The Besleys’ marriage is falling apart after Kiki discovers a previous infidelity, but at this point, it is hard to see how this couple ever got together in the first place. The description of academic life made me thankful I’m a scientist, where theories are tested by experimentation, and data generally trumps personality. In Wellington, haughty professors proclaim their opinions as if they were proven facts. Although the town is fictional, the book is full of references to Boston, which I enjoyed. Overall, I would say that On Beauty probably doesn’t live up to the praise that’s been heaped upon it (it has won several awards for fiction), but it is still an enjoyable and worthwhile read. I have a paperback copy if anyone wants to borrow it.