An academic comedy of multicultural manners finds Smith recapturing the sparkle of White Teeth (2000).
Following her sophomore slump with The Autograph Man (2002), the British author returns to biting, frequently hilarious form with a novel that concerns two professors who are intellectual enemies but whose families become intertwined. Radical theorist Howard Belsey, a British art historian married to the African-American Kiki, detests the cultural conservatism of Monty Kipps, a Caribbean scholar based in England. Kipps apparently has the best of their rivalry, having raised his profile with a well-received book on Rembrandt that stands in stark contrast to Belsey’s attempts to complete a counter-argument manuscript. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, Belsey’s son becomes engaged to Kipps’s irresistibly beautiful daughter, Kipps accepts an invitation to become guest lecturer at the Massachusetts college where Belsey is struggling for tenure and the wives of the two discover that they are soul mates. As Smith details the generation-spanning interactions of various minorities within a predominantly white, liberal community, she finds shades of meaning in shades of skin tone, probing the prickly issues of affirmative action, race relations and cultural imperialism while skewering the political correctness that masks emotional honesty. As the author acknowledges in an afterword, her story’s structure pays homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, recasting the epistolary beginning of that book as a series of e-mails, while incorporating all sorts of contemporary cultural allusions to hip-hop, academic theory and the political climate in the wake of 9/11. Though much of the plot concerns the hypocrisies and occasional buffoonery of the professors, along with the romantic entanglements and social crises of their offspring, the heart and soul of the novel is Kiki Belsey, who must decide whether to continue to nurture a husband who doesn’t deserve her. While some characters receive scant development, the personality that shines through the narrative most strongly is that of Smith.
In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty’s only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone.