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'Beauty' is in eye of beholder

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Few recent novels start out as marvelously engrossing as Zadie Smith's On Beauty. Except, of course, Smith's own debut phenomenon, White Teeth, published in 2000.

The young British writer is an absolute whiz at creating compelling characters who are able to lure the reader into wanting to know every detail of their lives and actions.

And for most of her newest novel, Smith continues to entice readers, weaving a fascinating work that explores academic politics, marriage, racial identity, and the convoluted emotional dynamics among siblings, parents and children. On Beauty has the reader murmuring with admiration and delight at this tale of two families, two marriages, two sets of grown children. Smith's writing flows with intelligence, wit and emotional insight.

While the novel is primarily set on a New England college campus, most of the characters are British or Caribbean-reared.

Smith has the occasional misstep with her U.S. characters, particularly a Florida-born African-American hospital administrator and her teen son, but it is not fatal to the novel's enjoyment.

The real problem with On Beauty is buried in the preface where Smith notes that her novel is an homage to E.M. Forster. The acclaimed British writer is most famous for such novels as A Passage to India and Howards End, brilliant explorations of English society.

Smith's novel starts out beautifully, but by the end, the reader is left thinking that the plot has devolved into a mechanical melodrama overly influenced by the author's desire to honor Howards End. You feel a need to reread Forster not for the pleasure, but to figure out why Smith put her wonderfully drawn characters through increasingly strained plot machinations.

On Beauty focuses on two well-off families who come into contact and eventual conflict.

The staid Kippses are led by Sir Montague Kipps, a famous and deeply conservative intellectual from the Caribbean who was one of the very first blacks to attend Oxford. His rigid son is eager to emulate Sir Monty, but his rebellious daughter, Victoria, has a different agenda.

Sir Monty's ethereal wife, Carlene, connects briefly but intensely with the matriarch of the Belsey family, Kiki.

The hospital administrator, Kiki has been married for three decades to Howard, a charming and loquacious, if self-centered, British-born art history professor. Although there is great affection between the two, their marriage has sailed into big trouble because of Howard's sexual straying.

The unruly Belsey offspring include two very different sons and a daughter who embodies youthful ambition and awkwardness.

Into this mix, add an inner-city hip-hop poet, Haitian exiles and a valuable painting of a Caribbean voodoo goddess.

Smith succeeds in making On Beauty a celebration of Forster.

But she is such a talented writer that in choosing to pay tribute to Forster, she has shortchanged her own gifts.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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