My favourite character in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was Zora. She reminded me very strongly of myself in a variety of ways, a chubby, intellectual girl who was persistent, ambitious, and unafraid of talking frankly and using her talent for finesse to get what she wanted from professors, which ends up making her the closest thing to a hero that the novel has in the end. Her biggest flaw is, according to the narrative, her lack of real commitment to the causes she lobbies for, which is supposedly superficial, but I saw it more as a common trait of intelligent nineteen year olds still trying to figure out their identity and what matters to them. Instead of taking it out by playing devil’s advocate with other people’s beliefs, Zora throws herself into causes and works hard on giving them the best of her brain and labour.

But what was most interesting to me about Zora was how her relationship with her parents played out. The majority of Zora’s parental interactions, and what ends up being the fulcrum of the novel’s denouement, were with her white, British father. I never got a sense in the novel that Zora was as invested in her relationship with her black, American mother as she was with her father. She engages with her mother, but those interactions didn’t seem to matter as much to her. Her father is clearly someone she admires and wishes to emulate.

This resonated with me strongly, because I felt the same way about how my relationship with my parents played out. My Canadian, white, Jewish father, even though he died when I was 13, was always the parent I sought to model myself after, and whom I ended up being most alike in terms of ambition, life goals, humour, and personality. My Blackfoot, American mother, on the other hand, is someone with whom I have a strained, chilly, and superficial relationship. My mother is still alive, I still talk to her (about once a month now) and I strictly limit the topics to shallow niceties, because that is all that I can really discuss with her without upsetting or confusing her. My queerness, my chosen career in academia, my love life, my political activism, my social life, are all beyond her understanding. This has sometimes caused me internal anguish, at being a mixed-race child and preferring my white parent, and being in a sphere of academia where there are few people who look like me, understand my cultural dynamics, and can appreciate how it shaped my perspectives.

But that is why Zora is so important to me. Even though she is younger than me, she doesn’t have much existential anguish about clearly preferring her father and wishing to emulate him. Now and then in the novel, the legitimacy of her and her siblings’ blackness will get called into question, but she does a considerably more graceful job of navigating that than either of her brothers, and aside from moments of great upset and hurt, such as when her heart is broken, any identity angst or guilt she may be feeling is far below the surface of what the reader is allowed to see, and she seems to have dealt with whatever there was of it by the conclusion.

It is interesting to note how both herself and her younger brother Levi are both positioned at times as though they are engaging in a performance, Zora when she is around other academics who are older and more experienced than her, Levi  when he wishes to find solace in a community of primarily Haitian boys who come from a very different part of Boston than the white suburban neighborhood he calls home. But Zora’s is shown as having a chance to grow into herself, rather than having the performance limit her or be kept to a mask she dons when she’s around academics. And I do say so for myself, young mixed race aspiring academics do grow, do change, and do get a chance to get more comfortable, once they stop trying to find meaning to be delivered to them from others. Zora will definitely handle that transformation and personal growth quite well.