Having read and really loved Zadie Smith’s Swing Time a few weeks ago, I had a harder time with On Beauty, although it is just as well written with as much wit and insight. The big struggle for me with On Beauty is that, while it’s told from an omniscient point of view with several major characters, one of the central characters, Howard, is a man I found so unpleasant I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to him (or else I was actively hoping for the worst to happen to him).
I don’t mind flawed characters. I don’t even need characters to be “likable,” exactly, as long as there’s something there that’s interesting and that I can relate to, or that intrigues me. But Howard — a middle-aged white academic married to a black woman, raising three young adult children and locked in a professional feud with a fellow academic whose family life becomes entwined with Howard’s in myriad ways — is both awful and boring. And I really felt this was a flaw in the book, not in my appreciation of Howard. Several chapters in, Howard’s wife, Kiki, who has not decided whether or not to forgive him for a spot of infidelity, reflects that whatever else he did, he could always make her laugh. As the reader, I had to that point seen nothing in the story to indicate Howard had a sense of humour. He certainly never made me laugh. Kiki thinks of herself as having married her best friend, while I found it impossible to believe that a woman as interesting and vital as Kiki could ever have had this limp dishrag of a man as her best friend.
I did enjoy all the other characters and points of view, and the story itself was interesting, but Howard as the big soul-sucking cypher at the centre of the narrative was a major flaw I never got over. After I read it, I found out that it’s sort of a riff on the novel Howard’s End, which I’ve never read. Maybe I’d have appreciated it more if I had, but the end of this particular Howard couldn’t come quickly enough for me.