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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Beauty And Synaptic Sparks

What are the truly beautiful things in life and how far will you go to get them?

Questions similar to the one above - from the book jacket of "On Beauty" (2005) by Zadie Smith - have been on my mind since I finished Muriel Barbery's "Elegance of the Hedgehog" (2006) about three years ago. And though these two talented authors approach the subject of beauty from very different perspectives, they share traits that helped rivet me to their respective novels: a fearless point of view, a sly sense of humor, and a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, especially across class lines.

Smith's book is roomier than Barbery's three character miniature. The patriarchs of the Belsey and Kipps family are feuding academics. Despite the diametrically opposed politics of Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps, their wives Kiki and Carlene become friends. The beauty of a painting helps unify the matriarchs; the beauty of the Kipps' daughter Victoria is catnip to men. In scenes bristling with tension, the author expertly depicts how far people will go and how they will deceive themselves and others to hold onto or just be near to beauty.

"Her little audience guffawed, pretending to a worldliness none of them had earned". Reading that sentence about midway through "On Beauty", synaptic sparks flew. I heard the 1991 moan of Elvis Costello singing "You haven't earned the weariness that sounds so jaded on your tongue" from his song "All Grown Up".  Smith would have been about 16 years old when that song was released. And, she's a Brit just like Elvis. Coincidence? Probably.


  1. “When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”
    ― Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

    the most elegant beauty is in the everyday, however small events, that are put in our immediate midst, begging for our attention...those little ways that we strive to change the world, one small deed at a time...

  2. I wish we got more insight into Victoria's perspective on her own beauty and how she valued it, and what traits she found beautiful in the men she chose to seek out.