If, as Cyril Connolly suggested, success is the greatest of all the enemies of literature, few talents can have been more threatened than Zadie Smith's. And indeed White Teeth, her triumphant debut, was followed by The Autograph Man, an awkward, slightly chaotic novel that gave the impression of a writer disoriented by a cacophonic critical babble and trying to regain her bearings by asking herself (as Connolly might have counseled), Would it amuse Horace or Milton or Swift or Leopardi? Could it be read to Flaubert or Dave Eggers?
On Beauty, Smith's third novel, is by contrast an assured effort—although Smith remains sufficiently self-conscious (and generous) to expressly acknowledge the influence of E. M. Forster: "He gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." This material concerns a fateful year or so in the lives of the Belseys, a family living in the liberal splendor of a Massachusetts college town. The father (white, English) is a professor, the mother (African-American) is a hospital administrator, and they have three kids, all students. They are confronted with familiar enemies of familial happiness—marital infidelity, creeping emotional isolation, coming-of-age hazards—as well as the ideological and spiritual challenges arising from the arrival in town of the Kippses, an aggressively reactionary and religious Anglo-Caribbean family.