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.