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Zadie Smith writes dialogue as if she has wiretapped the universe. She can do street jive, academic blather, spousal griping, and "did-you-see-that-booty" banter. Poetry, rap, seduction, betrayal, anger: She's got the words to go with every kind of human music.
For instance, she can do kitchen-variety maternal threat and teenage backtalk.
"You live in this house, you have to help out with family stuff. . . . You don't pay any rent here," Kiki Belsey scolds her balky daughter, Zora, who replies by bringing her hands together in mock prayer: "That's so gracious, thank you. Thank you for letting me stay in my childhood home."
Smith's knack for capturing how people talk is one of many reasons that her third novel -- a sprawling, trans-Atlantic tale of the interplay between two academic families -- is so remarkable.
Like your best friend (if you're lucky), "On Beauty" is smart and funny. This is the kind of big novel you want to haul around with you, never willing to get too far from its addictive charms.
But its thrills aren't cheap. Based loosely on E.M. Forster's "Howards End" (with many a playful reference and inside joke, along with its own Leonard Bast character and its own greedily withheld bequest), the novel was a contender for this year's Booker prize, Britain's highest literary honor.
Its quality gives the lie to Zadie Smith's critics who snipe that she is a fad: a young, beautiful, mixed-race Brit who writes about all things trendy and multi-cultural. The admiring buzz over Smith's debut novel, "White Teeth," died down with her faltering second effort, "Autograph Man." The jury was still out.
But Smith proves beyond doubt in "On Beauty" that she is a truly gifted writer -- wonderfully adept with language, character and scene -- and a capable storyteller.
Smith nimbly takes us from New England to London, from teenagers in Boston's streets hustling knock-off Prada bags to an elderly father and son grimly watching the telly in a working-class English parlor.
As Tom Wolfe's prose did in "Bonfire of the Vanities," Smith's writing bursts with energy and abundance. This novel starts every day with a triple shot of espresso. And, as with Wolfe, the word "facile" comes to mind, but not meaning superficial. Rather, she makes it look easy.
The novel is set mostly in a Cambridge-like Massachusetts town, at a college ("Wellington") portrayed as a sub-Ivy cross between, perhaps, Wellesley and Bennington.
At its center are art history professor Howard Belsey and his earthy wife, Kiki, whose 30-year marriage is in crisis. Their three nearly-adult children, along with rival professor Monty Kipps, his family, and a diverse cast of others -- academics, rappers, poets, and more -- keep the action jumping.
The characters play off each other like human pinballs, setting off reactions, ringing life's bells and buzzers. The pace can be dizzying, and if there is a flaw here, it's the confusion that results from this relentless movement.
But Smith's writerly chops, coupled with her humanity, make it all work out.
When Smith describes Claire Malcom, a petite poet with whom Howard Belsey has dallied, we see her through the eyes of his zaftig wife, Kiki -- who, during her three-decade marriage, has gained perhaps a hundred pounds.
Claire "was neatly made with a minimum of material. When she moved a finger, you could trace the motion through pulleys of veins that went all the way up her slender arms and shoulders to her neck, itself elegantly creased like the lungs of an accordion."
Smith's observations are startlingly fresh. Flashes of brilliance illuminate every page. But despite its sequins and flashing lights, "On Beauty" is no circus act and Smith is no mere acrobat.
Her understanding of the human heart -- with all its frailty and all its quixotic hope for redemption -- runs deep.
"On Beauty" entertains marvelously, but you learn something, too. You go away wiser. And most of all, you stand back and marvel at the author: so very knowing for one so young. At barely 30 years old, Zadie Smith is soaring.
By Zadie Smith
The Penguin Press
443 pages, $25.95
Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The News.
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