The story is set primarily on the liberal-arts campus of Wellington College and in nearby Boston. Smith rescues the tale from what could be a clich & eacute;d setting via demographical reversals like making the conservative professor black and exploring characters of hybrid ethnic backgrounds.
Art history professor Howard Belsey, who is British and white, is horrified that his nerdy mixed-race son, Jerome, has had his first (failed) love affair with the ravishing daughter of his rival, black conservative Monty Kipps. Worse still, he learns that Kipps has won an appointment at Wellington. Adding to Howard's misery, his wife Kiki, a former Florida black activist turned faculty wife, has discovered that he's had an affair. Soon into the novel, just as she's making peace with Howard's betrayal, the now-overweight Kiki discovers that he committed his indiscretion with a colleague and family friend, the slim and WASPishly attractive poet Claire Malcolm. Meanwhile, almost by accident, she rediscovers friendship outside marriage with Kipps' ailing wife, Carlene, who has the free spirit of a natural aristocrat. Their friendship is forged through their shared appreciation of a painting that hangs unnoticed in her home and that later becomes central to the plot.
Howard and Kiki's marital precariousness forms the backbone of the novel, and you don't know until the conclusion whether they'll make it. All of Smith's characters unfold through encounters -- often collisions -- with beauty. A Rembrandt scholar, Howard doesn't even like Rembrandt, yet the shock of feminine beauty threatens to undo both him and his marriage. Kiki struggles to reckon with the truth of her own large, middle-aged body.
By exploring the ways beauty moves us to act, Smith has written a social novel that rings true.