Saturday, January 13, 2007

Zadie Smith's On Beauty... and Amazon

I just finished On Beauty and have to say I loved every page of it. I kept looking up from the book as I was reading to tell JRL about something I thought was particularly great. But this afternoon, when I was thinking about blogging about the book, I decided to check out what Amazon had to say about it. YIPES! On Beauty gets a mere three stars out five, considerably less than the typical four to four-and-a-half out of five. Even the book that currently qualifies as The Worst Book I Ever Read (a "cozy" mystery that shall remain nameless) gets a full five.

Why? I was staggered by Smith's ability to fully inhabit so many different characters so convincingly. She can snap a scene into full color with just a sentence or two -- she has a faultless ear for the way people speak and an eye for the detail that makes everything real. Her depiction of a teenager working at a Virgin record store was perfect -- I don't need to get a job there now; I know what it's like. And a scene between a middle-aged Englishman and his elderly father was just as spot-on.

What? Did you say something about plot? Oh, yeah. Well, there was an affair. Hmm... let's see... Okay, so there's not much in the way of a conventional plot. But did I miss it? No, actually; I didn't even notice until I read the Amazon reviews. The constantly shifting relationships between the characters kept me riveted. Zadie Smith is very, very smart (I don't even want to think about how much younger than me she is) and it was just a pleasure to spend some time in her mind.

I don't know whether to despair at the book's relatively low Amazon rating or to just shrug my shoulders -- after all, according to the tenets of popularity McDonald's is a great restaurant, and anyway, it's not like On Beauty didn't win about 9,000 awards.

But won't that low score prevent some people from buying the book? It will, and that's a shame.


blooked said...

Me too. I loved On Beauty. I loved it so much I went out and bought a copy of Howard's End by E M Forster (as it's Smith's hommage to the great man). The characters were fantastic (better than Forster's).

I thought the plot was quite pacey actually. People make mistakes and then try to cover up - there are young and old alike wondering how to get what they want, without talking to the ones they love about it.

The relationships were also very well done.

Amazon obviously needs better reviewers!

zoe said...

I have to say, I tried to read On Beauty recently and could not work up the energy to read beyond page 60 or so. I thought the characters were hammy and irritating. For example, where the American mother is thinking about her size and other people's perceptions of her felt so self-conscious and forced.
The thing is I really, really want to like Zadie Smith. I greatly admire her, there's no doubt she's very clever and we're the same age!
Maybe I should give it another go...

—T. said...

I don't want to believe that Amazon's reviews would persuade anyone to give a book a chance or toss it aside. What I do believe is that Amazon would bash any book if it's going to make $10 more on the sale of another book. Good books get read by word of mouth. And Zadie Smith's On Beauty has just been sold to me.