The action in On Beauty begins with a family steering through the mad clatter of breakfast. A college-age daughter wears headphones while staring at a television. Her 15-year-old brother slumps around with boxers peeking out from baggy pants. The parents puzzle over e-mail sent from another son relocated to England, quibbling over "facetious" reactions in the language of adults who know each other too well to be sure they know each other at all. This is the manic, lived-in world of Zadie Smith.
After rising to stardom with White Teeth and falling from grace with her perplexingly bad The Autograph Man, Smith is back in form with On Beauty, a boisterous novel about two warring families pitched on either side of the liberal-conservative divide. Cloistered around Wellington College (a would-be Harvard just outside Boston), the Belseys fall in line beneath Howard, a theory-clutching white professor with leftist leanings, and Kiki, his African-American wife. Their kids cover the spread between brainy servitude and the stylized "street" insolence of a budding teenage hip-hop fan. The family's foil comes to town behind Monty Kipps, a visiting Trinidadian professor whose staunchly conservative views—on issues ranging from affirmative-action to the classical canons of academia—drive Howard up a wall. The two clans intertwine in poignant and pugilistic ways, but On Beauty works best as a chronicle of the families' respective unravelings.
Like Groucho Marx singing "Whatever it is, I'm against it," Howard is an art-history professor who takes aim at "beliefs about the redemptive humanity of what is commonly called 'Art.'" He hates Rembrandt—or at least the idea of him as it's been handed down—and proffers what his daughter calls "evisceration theory—you know, like art should rip your fucking guts out." Howard's cartoonish resistance to matters unrelated to the mind leaves him lost and alone, especially as his family squirms away from his ideology. On the other side, Monty fancies himself a heroic iconoclast among his "liberal arts" peers. He espouses Christianity and tough-love policies that rankle those who at least try to empathize with others less fortunate.
Curiously and bravely neutral through it all, Smith exposes both fathers' hypocrisy with a well-pitched sense for family nattering. Instances of infidelity and tin-eared arguments give On Beauty an occasional melodramatic air, but Smith's strengths as a storyteller shine as big events echo small tectonic identity shifts. In the end, On Beauty stands as a rich survey of people living through complex fates that their tidy ideas fail to account for.