“It’s easy to confuse a woman for a philosophy.”

These words, penned by Zadie Smith in her book “On Beauty,” surmise the insight Smith provides on how women view themselves and how society views women.

Smith is the 2022 recipient of the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, which “honors an important writer whose work has drawn a wide audience and who helps us understand the human condition in original and powerful ways,” according to PEN America. 

Courtesy of Dominique Nabokov

Smith, currently a tenured professor at New York University, has also been listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists twice, and her books have received a multitude of awards. Aside from these accolades, her 2005 novel, “On Beauty,” is a celebrated study of womanhood, race and politics. 

“On Beauty” is intensely character driven. Smith drops the reader into the tumultuous life of the Belsey family, headed by Kiki Belsey, a diligent mother and nurse, as well as Howard Belsey, a professor at the college in their town. The Belseys have three children, one in high school and two in college, each characterized as authentic and relatable adolescents. 

Tensions in the family arise from multiple areas: Howard has an affair with a fellow professor and Kiki befriends the wife of Howard’s most hated colleague while each of the children struggle with their own identities. 

Levi, the youngest child, grapples with his identity as an upper-class Black man and feels disconnected from less fortunate Black people in his town. The middle child Zora forges an unforgettable path in the world of academia and the eldest child Jerome seeks an escape from the suffocating political beliefs of his family. 

Smith also delves into the experiences of a multiracial family, as Howard, who is white, often fails to understand the Blackness his children share with his wife. 

In “On Beauty,” Smith’s characters also tackle the different challenges surrounding womanhood. She provides insight into the role women play as mothers, wives, sisters and friends. While different archetypes of women are represented, Smith paints all of them in a positive light, emphasizing the internalized misogyny often surrounding wives of cheating husbands or stay-at-home moms. 

The friendship between Kiki Belsey and the wife of Howard’s enemy, Carlene Kipps, is short-lived but revealing. Kiki and Carlene disagree on many fundamental aspects of womanhood. Carlene argues the feminine essence exists in the physical body, and Kiki believes her feminine spirit most strongly exists in her mind. 

Nonetheless, the women care for each other in a nurturing and sensitive way, appreciating simply the shared experience of motherhood. This relationship speaks to a deeper message of female connection and the bonds women create just through the knowledge of the feminine. 

Smith adds new meaning to a “slice-of-life” novel, and readers are drawn into the chaotic world of the Belseys. Each character is given their own devastating and enlightening story arc, making Smith an honorable recipient of an award for those who analyze the human condition. 

Smith is an integral figure to honor during Women’s History Month, as her writing captures the struggle and beauty of modern-day issues surrounding womanhood. 

4 / 5 stars