Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I was seized yesterday afternoon with a need to get hold of it immediately, walked over to the Harvard Bookstore but found they'd sold every single copy and had thirty more on order. Since I wanted it RIGHT THEN I sheepishly crept over to Barnes and Noble where they had a gazillion copies and bought one ("Read her earlier ones?" the cashier asked me. I said I'd read the first one & liked it, half of the second but stalled. He was also a fan of White Teeth and told me they'd sold at least fifty copies of On Beauty in the first week).
I linger on these details because it seems to me sad but true that this book's going to be a huge seller partly because it's so bland. It's a reasonably enjoyable read, sure, albeit of a kind that is not exactly my thing. (I was longing for, oh, a serial killer or a private investigator or a talking animal of some kind or a superhero, it reminded me how much I generally prefer novels that are not too much like life. This one is way too much like life, or like a thin slice of something passing for life--a Masterpiece Theater version of life, say, in 8 or 10 one-hour segments. I know too much of these places--even the North London ones, curiously my mother grew up in Willesden though my grandparents had scaled up to Highgate by the time I knew them, and I REALLY didn't feel like reading a novel about Harvard--and people and so on and it all seems much too campus-y. I make exceptions for certain campus novels I like, James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale was excellent and I am secretly fond of the academic satire/wizard universities of Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones and various others. But in general I avoid them for some of the same reasons I have no desire to write an academic blog: I absolutely love my academic life, but I get enough of it during the day to make me want something different the rest of the time.)
The campus novel question, though, is largely peripheral. The problem with this book lies in the writing. The prose feels under-edited, there are some careless phrases and lapses in diction (especially in the dialogue); even the main characters feel pretty thin because of this (the teenage brother Levi is the only real exception, he's much more alive than the rest of them but it's not enough to make things work). I always when I'm reading a book I really like am dogearing pages or sticking on post-its to mark great sentences or paragraphs, great because of the order of the words on the page as well as because of something perceptive or striking or fresh in the observation. I didn't find anything like that here, not a single passage. (OK, I did think the glee club scene at the end was pretty funny, but it remains a complete mystery why anybody even minds one way or the other about Howard Belsey and what he does, his charisma is so thoroughly told to rather than shown us.)
Scrolling back through this, I realize I have written something pretty negative. Let me clarify: I don't regret buying this book, I don't regret reading it, it was decent entertainment. (I must confess too that I have also always disliked the novels of E. M. Forster, especially Howards End.) On Beauty will probably disappoint those who care most for language, but there are other pleasures in its pages for novel-readers of all kinds. Smith is more modest about her own attainments as a novelist than most of her champions, too; if you took this book on her own terms, it would seem fair enough, I think. And here's a thoughtful and very positive review by Joy Press in the Village Voice to take away the bad taste of my criticism here.