On Beauty

by Zadie Smith

Hardcover, 2005

Call number




Penguin Press HC, The (2005), Edition: First Edition, 464 pages


Set between New England and London, On Beauty concerns a pair of feuding families - the Belseys and the Kipps - and a clutch of doomed affairs. It puts low morals among high ideals and asks some searching questions about what life does to love.

Media reviews

On Beauty" is that rare comic novel about the divisive cultural politics of the new century likely to amuse readers on the right as much as those on the left. (Not that they'll necessarily be laughing in the same places.) Yet Smith is up to more as well: she wants to rise above the fray even as she
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wallows in it, to hit a high note of idealism rather than sink into the general despair. How radical can you be? Blame it on her youth.
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2 more
Beautifully observed details of clothing, weather, cityscapes and the bustling human background of drivers, shoppers and passers-by are constantly being folded into the central flow of thought, feeling and action, giving even the most mundane moments - Levi riding a bus into Boston, Howard setting
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up a projector - a dense, pulsing life.
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On Beauty is quieter. There is a complicated story making up by richness of implication what it lacks in exuberance. The culture of the Boston campus is set among the other cultures such a city harbours. Carl, the outsider who enters the story because of the muddle at the concert, is far from being
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a replica of Leonard Bast. He’s an exponent of rap culture – and it is a culture, unlike Bast’s pathetic aspirations. The power of his rap has to be explained, and indeed the author intervenes personally to endorse it: ‘the present-day American poets, the rappers’. The mufflered pink-cheeked charm of a New England campus in winter is very agreeably rendered. The row between Professor Belsey and Kiki when she finds out he’s been cheating is as deft as anybody could make it, he with his stumbling, evasive academic dialect and she with her ‘personal’ language and naturally inflexible notions of fidelity and honour. In a late scene Kiki is sorting out her children’s accumulated belongings. As she is carrying two bags of her elder son’s ‘pre-growth-spurt clothes’, we are told: Last year, she had not thought she would still be in this house, in this marriage, come spring. But here she was, here she was. A tear in the garbage bag freed three pairs of pants and a sweater. Kiki crouched to pick these up and, as she did so, the second bag split too. She had packed them too heavy. The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free. What makes this passage brilliant is that the sententia at the end, though it may be true, is somehow made ironical because it is Kiki, there among all the random evidence of her love, who is uttering it, and not some cheat, some intellectual, some person of recognised authority. She is the measure of Zadie Smith’s powers at 30, Forster’s age when he published Howards End.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member JimElkins
What is brilliant dialogue? For some years sharply written direct narration (reported speech), using quotation marks and minimal contexts, has been associated with publications like McSweeney's and the New Yorker, and also with writers who also work for television, like Richard Price. I don't know
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if there's been a study of this style, but it is taught in hundreds of MFA programs. Zadie Smith excels at it.

Her dialogue is honed and alert. She's always listening to what's happening around her characters--they might be interrupted at any moment by an alarm, or a dog barking, or a neighbor. She's attentive to what doesn't need to be said. She describes contexts as minimally, telegraphically, evocatively, unexpectedly.

Much of this book, and also the novel "NW," is dialogue, and it seldom flags. There are vanishingly few false notes. Every sentence has to be read, nothing can be skimmed. The writing is taut, scintillating, resourceful, articulate, consistently engaging. Sentences ring true to the characters who speak them, their times, ages, places, desires.

I dislike all of that. Why try so hard to keep your reader's interest, page after page? Why demonstrate brilliance, line after line? Why keep the energy fizzing, the quality topped up, the language razor-sharp? Why not let things go at different paces, go slack, run off track, wander? Why not rant for a few dozen pages, like Bernhard? Or mull indecisively, like Beckett? Or pause to describe, like Flaubert? There's a desire, in writing like Smith's, to keep the reader's admiration and attention at all costs. As if writing is a high-wire act and the crowd is incipiently bored: there has to be a high wind at all times or the reader spectators will yawn.

I find myself both entertained and exhausted by Smith. As the books go on, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about her skill: I take note only when she does something especially spectacular, as in the scene in this book in which the narrator's infidelity is revealed to his wife with an exceptionally subtle expression, exceptionally subtly described. The philosopher Karsten Harries called this the "kitsch economy": the necessity to continuously up the voltage, to outdo previous effects, because audiences have become numb. After fifty pages, I begin to feel I have been devalued as a reader: the author apparently thinks I need to be entertained at every moment, that I have no way of taking in longueurs, no interest in diversions, little capacity for meditation. It's as if brilliance is style, rather than an ornament or strategy within a style.

Smith has said, in an interview with the Paris Review, that she thinks there are more ways to be an innovative writer than carrying on the modernist experiment in writing, which she associates mainly with Joyce. She remarked that it's also innovative to bring new social configurations into novels, like the poor Londoners in "NW" or the mixed, transatlantic Afro-Caribbean characters in "On Beauty." Much of her appeal to reviewers and readers is her explorations of identity and ethnicity, and it is true that she finds subjects that have not yet been part of the discourse of novels. But she is wrong, I think, to equate that kind of innovation with the modernist experimentation with language. It's a category error: Joyce also had unusual ethnic content, and Smith's new content still has to be expressed using the languages of the novel. The two sources of innovation are entwined, but one does not lead to the other. If you pretend that linguistic innovation is a thing of the past, you become oblivious to the indebtedness, possibilities, and obligations of your own linguistic practices.

And there is a blind spot in her sense of her own project as a novelist, because her writing is deeply indebted to Joyce, especially the Joyce of "Ulysses." She uses a number of his innovations, for instance the device of having a character speak before he or she has been introduced, compelling the reader to keep going a while before the speaker's context and meaning become clear. She is, in fact, in the line that leads from Joyce to more recent writing, but she chooses, or needs, not to see her work in that way.

Personally, I am not interested in Afro-Caribbean identities, or in campus novels (and I'm especially not interested in depictions of my own field, art history), and so much of this book's content isn't engaging. That leaves the writing. It is breathless in its desire to capture my attention at every moment, and I find that it shrinks my sense of myself as a reader, giving me less scope to imagine or experience as I might hope. And I am baffled by the author's own idea that she isn't in the modernist tradition, that she isn't engaging possibilities of writing that began, for her, with Joyce. Surely it doesn't make sense to imagine the kind of dialogue in this book as being simply true to life, or merely beautiful, brilliant, or articulate dialogue: her style of writing has a specific history, and it echoes with the achievements of novelists of the past. But she does not imagine her work that way: apparently she thinks her skills as a writer serve her interests in politics, race, class, and identity, the way faceless servants once attended to Europeans who remained unconscious of their presence.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
It was an OK read, but nothing special. I didn't find it humorous, I don't think it really did much in terms of social or culture wars. It seemed to be more about the end of a marriage, when it becomes just a tired ritual, rather than anything with value or feeling.

I was interested in the lives of
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the characters, but didn't actually care about them. They were closed, and self-absorbed, and nasty to each other.

The children of mixed race and culture and seemed to personify the 3 standard options, rather than actual people: 1. The urge to be very 'Street' to validate your blackness (Levi); 2. The urge to be very smart and better than anyone else to prove your blackness isn't a handicap (Zora); 3. The inability to decide what to do or who you are so your are drifting, dreamy, and reaching for something outside yourself to belong to- Christianity (Jerome).

I thought Howard was a typical burnt-out bitter academic, who has no actual theory or discovery of his own, so he dedicated himself to trashing others. He uses his anger, disappointment and hatred as a weapon to not only denigrate the works of others, but to prove his own superiority. As though anyone with a different opinion and an ounce of feeling is somehow lacking in brains and the ability to think rationally.

Kiki is the standard black earth-mother, queen, home-goddess. Ho hum, such cliches.

I thought the ending was a fizzle in terms of story, even if Howard has an epiphany.

I thought the writing was awkward and stiff, and the attempt to create American characters and dialog, didn't quite make it. Also the depiction of the inner life of an American college was not what I would consider accurate. Especially a New England college.

Still it was interesting, but I am glad its over, and have no real interest in anything else by Smith.
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LibraryThing member tapestry100
A retelling of Howards End, Smith deftly recasts Forster's characters in today's age and sensibilities. Some bits I found a little off (Carlene's bequest to Kiki, for instance, seemed a little out of place) but overall, as a self-proclaimed "homage" to Howards End, Smith created an admirable
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If you are familiar with Forster's Howards End, I think you'll get more from On Beauty. While it doesn't follow the original exactly, Smith does take enough from Howards End that much of her story will make better sense if you've read the other first. It is interesting to see how Smith reworks some of the social structure. Instead of being a book about social classes and the differences therein, Smith reworked the story to become more a study about liberal versus conservative sensibilities. She still touches on the class differences in several ways, between the students that can't afford to attend college, and the Haitian immigrants who are trying to get fair treatment in the US.

To be honest however, by the end of the book I really didn't care what happened to the characters one way or the other. I'm not really sure what happened there, but by the last half dozen or so chapters, I lost all interest in what was happening. The book is still incredibly well written, I think I just grew tired of the constant string of lies and deceit that seemed to stream through the Belsey household. There also seemed to be a lot of build up to the eventual confrontation between the two families, and when it did finally happen, it happened quickly and without much fanfare. It seemed like the book was well-paced right up to the end, and then Smith rushed the story to it's conclusion.

I'm not sorry that I read the book; I just think I would have enjoyed a little better pacing at the end of the book.
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LibraryThing member nathanhobby
The first half of this ambitious family/campus novel completely absorbed me. My attention dwindled in the second half, and for me Zadie didn't manage to pull of the massively ambitious scenario she sets up, but it is still an intelligent, engaging and witty read. Howard Belsey is a middle aged
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academic who has spent his whole career pulling down notions of 'beauty' and 'genius'; his bitter rival is the black conservative, Monty Kipps. The two families and their competing accounts of the world - liberal V conservative; humanist V Christian - are brought into direct conflict when Howard's son falls in love with Monty's daughter. If I had to guess, I'd say that Zadie's sympathies would lie slightly toward a more conservative account of art and beauty, that there is such a thing as beauty and meaning. But she certainly shows how well she appreciates both accounts of the world; she is able to depict them convincingly and sympathetically and yet also satirize them. She is also generationally adept, showing herself to be an astute observer of both Baby Boomer parents and Gen Y children. She gets inside every character's mindset. My disappointment is in the way characters like Jerome (Howard's son) slip out of the narrative after seeming so intergral to it, and the similar way in which we never quite catch full sight of Monty Kipps. Also, the central question of beauty is raised wonderfully but is never resolved or even brought into a high stakes resolution (Monty's lectures being the obvious place for it). In the end it feels like a novel which goes on too long without justifying its length, pages and pages of wonderful interplay between compelling characters which the author hasn't quite got under control and couldn't bear to cut.
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LibraryThing member lahochstetler
A dysfunctional academic family, headed by a dysfunctional academic, fights intellectual, academic, and personal battles. Howard Belsey finds himself teaching at the same institution as his arch-rival. More disastrously, he finds himself infatuated with his rival's college-age daughter. Victoria
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Kipps is a bit of a temptress, and Howard has no ability to control himself. Add to this equation Howard's long-suffering wife, Kiki, his academic superstar daughter Zora, one son competing with his father for Victoria, another fighting political battles he doesn't understand, and it becomes clear that this family is on the fast-track to disaster. The book is set in what looks very much like Wellesley, Massachusetts, and I kept thinking that the school was modeled on Wellesley College (it's co-ed, but in all other respects seems a match). At least, that's how I kept envisioning it.

I enjoyed the academic setting of this book, and absurdities of that world, which Smith details well. There were many times during the book when I simply wanted to hit Howard. I learned that I have very little tolerance for the weak-male mid-life crisis. I also occasionally wanted to smack Zora, who has a tendency towards the obnoxious. So, the characters are not exactly likable, hardly so. It says something that despite that I enjoyed this book very much.
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LibraryThing member robinamelia
I am listening to the CD version of this book. At first I was dismayed by the bland white American narrator, but he does an amazing job with the great variety of accents.

While listening, and raking leaves, I had a flashback to shoveling the snow last winter, and listening to Howard's End. I started
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to notice more and more similarities and had to check here to see, yes, that is not a secret, this book is basically an updating of Forster's novel. I loved the Forster novel and Smith has a hard act to follow. His book is still relevant and the characters and places so much more fully developed than Smith's: I just don't see the point of this except as a private literary exercise. Ok, so it's fun wondering "what will a person leave behind at this concert so they have to come in contact with the family?" and "Does it matter that it is Mozart's Requiem rather than Beethoven's Fifth that they are listening to"? Oh an English major's delight! We'll see.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Hysteric realism? I'd say so. Soap operatic family stuff with the occasional tinge of The Royal Tenebaums or The OC. To an extent, Zadie Smith is playing a shell game of the same sort I always thought Irvine Welsh was in his lesser fiction - a talent for turning a phrase and some specialty
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knowledge that her publisher's too old and unhip for (in Zadie's case, she can rely on her brother, the rapper Doc Brown), or more generally perhaps just the aura of itness, allow her to get away with some whoppers just on the strength of her presumed authority. I don't know whether she's just playin' or playing for keeps, but uh, "Scene?" "Meant to"? She does not know how young Americans talk and nobody else seems to pick up on it, whether out of ignorance or emperorhasnoclothesism. They just see "eyeano" and thing "I too have noticed that thing! Huzzah, Smith!"

But her overall feel for the rhythms of human speech at the present time is good, and theacademic satire is funny and gets funnier as the book goes on. Smart candy.
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LibraryThing member LiterateHousewife
I picked the audio copy of On Beauty on the suggestion of some wonderful Twitter buddies who answered my call for multi-cultural books with themes similar to Jonathon Franzen's Freedom (which I'll be starting in January). I've not read Zadie Smith before, which made this novel even more perfect to
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compare against Freedom. I'm a Franzen virgin as well. When I've finished them both, I'll be writing a more in depth comparison of them both. I will still be reviewing them separately. The comparison has more to do with my #readingfreude than it does the novels themselves.

On Beauty, although primarily about the racially mixed Belsey family, is the tale of two black, educated, university families. The Belsey family is made up of white Englishman Howard, African American Kiki, and their three children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. The Kipps family is made up of Monty, Carlene, and their children, Michael and Victoria. While the Belseys are politically and culturally very liberal and irreligious, the Kipps family are politically, culturally and religiously conservative. Both Howard and Monty teach and write about art. Even in the world of art they are diametrically opposed. In fact, Howard sees Monty as his arch nemesis. Despite every one's intentions, it proved impossible to keep the families apart, even when they were separated by the Atlantic.

This is a difficult novel to pin down in just a few paragraphs. It's dense and cerebral. I've spent months trying to write this review in my head and I've not been very successful. Instead of covering everything, I've decided to focus on the role of the wife in this novel. While outsiders might think Kiki's lot in life was more free and appealing, she was locked down just as much as Carlene appeared to be in Monty's home. The truth is that the women had more in common than anyone would have suspected. Carlene may outwardly hold up Monty's ideals, her mind is her own. She doesn't keep herself tied to an ideology at all costs. In the same way, Kiki finds that life is never as simple as black and white. The adult lives her son Jerome and daughter Zora start living mirrors how complex her own life has become. While the men in their lives fail to appreciate how their lives and view points can compliment each other, their wives are drawn to each other. They alone know how much their husbands are really alike.

Of all the characters, I related to and loved Kike the most. Kiki roared "I am woman!" in all her glory. She believed in herself and her culture when she was young and when she is middle aged, when she was fine and when she was fat. She grew more than any character in the book, finding that change does not equate to losing your essence. Her son, Levi, while less confident in who he was, was most like her. They both never tried to forget the importance of living in the here and now.

Since the demise of Guiding Light in September of 2009, it's not very often any longer that I can say, ''He/She is/was on my show!" On Beauty gave me such an opportunity. It's narrator, Peter Francis James, took a turn on Guiding Light. I recognized his voice before I did his picture. I found him to be a good narrator. I think he captured the attitude and tone of Howard and Monty especially well.
Final Thoughts

On Beauty was probably the most tiring book I read in 2011. It took a great deal of thought and concentration. It's one of those books I'm glad to have read but can't say that I enjoyed the process. I had to fight the urge to give it up because it was so stuffy. That stuffiness is essential to the story. Good Lord, it was so stifling there that things were bound to explode. The explosion was more internal and introspective than spectacular. It also required a good deal more of me as a reader. I'll be interested in seeing how it compares to Freedom.
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LibraryThing member librarianbryan
Takes 400 pages to list a bunch of interesting sociological issues without exploring them in any meaningful way. Language is too flat and the ideas too shallow for this to be literature.
LibraryThing member jperkins
one of the most highly over-rated books I've ever come across. She has a terrible ear for American slang, for instance, or even for American English (Americans don't say "am I meant to ...", they say "am I supposed to ..."). Minor flaw, but when multiplied, extremely irritating. I found most of her
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dialogue forced and not believable. A truly terrible book. I wish I hadn't wasted my time.
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LibraryThing member Daniel.Estes
This novel is a slice of several cultures I have little experience with: East Coast black urbanites, Ivy League university life, mixed-race families, London, art history and beat poetry. Many have criticized the story for its inauthentic dialogue and slow pacing. I can't speak for the dialogue
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except the words sound true to me though I do understand why others had problems with it. The apparent slower pacing worked well, I thought, because the prose was much more introspective. This book allows you to immerse yourself in each scene and each exchange of dialogue, and the added commentary is more like our own loose reflections on daily life, which give it a realism that others might find slow or irrelevant.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
I finally got around to reading Zadie Smith's On Beauty, a book I have had on the TBR shelf for years. The novel focuses on the Belsey family:

- Howard, a 57-year old art historian and critic at Wellington University (fictional uni in a fictional town near Boston)

- his wife Kiki. a notably large
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(mentioned often) African-American who gave up her dream of becoming a nurse to support her husband and raise their children

- Jerome, the eldest son, a student at Brown University and recent convert to Christianity

- Zora, a sophomore at Wellington, who is smart, competitive, and becoming socially aware

- Levi, the youngest. a rap afficiando whose has adopted the speech, mannerisms and ideas more in tune with the Bronx than his upper middle class background

The Belseys are reeling from several recent events. First, Howard was caught having an affair with a colleague who also happened to be a good family friend. He is doing his best--if not exactly everything he could--to earn Kiki's forgiveness, and she is trying to do her best to forgive him. Jerome is recovering from an unrequited love affair with Victoria Kipps, the beautiful daughter of his father's detested rival, Monty Kipps, a black conservative who has made a name for himself attacking affirmative action (and who also wrote a devastating critique of Howard's theories about Rembrandt). Levi is trying to find his own identity and has fallen in with a suspicious group of friends. As for Zora, she has taken on the cause of unregistered minority students from the community who have been allowed to attend classes at the individual professor's discretion. When the Kipps family moves into the neighborhood and Monty is hired by Wellington's Black Studies department, the Belseys, world is thrown into even more chaos.

In On Beauty, Smith explodes hypocrisy from all sides of the social, racial, class and political spectrum, and does it with both humor and empathy. The novel is supposedly a riff on E. M. Forster's Howard's End, but since I haven't read that one in years, I can't comment on the connection.
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LibraryThing member karensaville
Set in a US ivy league university town it is the story of two families who both have professors for fathers who have long been rivals. The book follows the lives of the children and wives and how their lives intertwine and covers class and race issues. An enjoyable read but not really mu cup of tea
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but I couldn't put my finger on why.
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LibraryThing member s_mcinally
A disappointment. Don't know why she is lauded as some kind of literary genius. Its a good enough easy read but not much more.
LibraryThing member iammbb

I want back the time that I wasted on this book.

Yuck again.

I want my money back.

Two families full of characters I either despised (Howard Belsey, Victoria Kipps) or simply disliked (Zora Belsey, Monty Kipps). It reminded me of The Corrections with no redeeming graces.

It was disjointed, with
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characters falling in and out of the story. Carl's here, Carl's not here, oops, Carl's here again, oh now Carl storms off for good.

There were no truths. Maybe that's an overstatement. Very few truths. Just contrivances, superficialities and exaggerations. Stereotypes.

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LibraryThing member John
On Beauty is a very good novel. Howard Belsey is originally British now living in the USA, a 57 year old, untenured academic who has promised more than he has delivered academically (with a major book perpetually "in the offing"), is married for 30 years to a black woman with whom he has had three
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very different children, who champions good liberal causes, has a running hatred-fueled feud with a conservative black scholar who ends up in his college, and who has a three week affair with a colleague and friend known to his family and to his wife. The novel explores the aftermath of that affair in the context of Kiki (his wife) and the children (teenagers: high school and college) developing their own lives in quite different directions with their own foibles and insecurities. Howard has huge insecurities of his own and he seems to stumble through life, ruining his life, his marriage and his relationships with his children through a mixture of cynicism, anger, selfishness and just plain obtuseness, almost if all of this isn't happening to him.

This summary sounds bleak and so does not give credit to the novel which is funny, mordant, and moving with a varied and well-drawn cast of characters who ring very true in their actions and thoughts. The novel explores love, fidelity, trust, lust, personal and professional rivalries, successes and failures, and the minefields of family relationships with the deft hand of an author who inhabits her characters and brings them very much to life.

I like Smith's writing with analogies and descriptions such as these:
"This second fellow had such lucent white skin and so prominent a plate of bone in his forehead that Howard felt oppressed by the sheer mortality of the man".
"Howard heard himself saying, all of it paraphrased from the chapter he had left upstairs, asleep on the computer screen, boring even to itself".
"The strength of her daughter's burgeoning will, the adolescent intensity of it, was something they were both discovering together, year on year. Kiki felt herself a whetsone that Zora was sharpening herself against".

A novel well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
On Beauty

This was a well written novel, the 3rd for this author. Smith probably used some of her experiences at Harvard and Cambridge to draw on the depictions of two families and their interactions in the fictional college town of Wellington, Mass. Howard Belsey is an art history professor for the
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school and the plot begins when his son, Jerome who was spending a summer internship with the Kipps family in London. Monty Kipps is Howard’s political opposite so it creates concern when Jerome announces that he has fallen in love with Vanessa Kipps, his hot daughter. Though that relationship does not last, the Kipps wind up moving to Wellington so that Monty can teach at the same school. The relationships and intertwining plot details create the conflict for the novel. Smith writes about many themes: academic principals, infidelities, race relations, the truth about Beauty, and the importance of family. Each of Howard’s children seems to represent another aspect of the novel’s themes. Jerome tries to find answers in religion, Levi in welcoming his more basic racial identity, Zora in intellectual pursuits. Probably the noblest character is Kiki, the black mother to this interracial family, who has sacrificed much to keep the group together. She and Howard have been married 30 years, enough time to perhaps forgive his brief affair with a poetry professor,( a women who was no bigger than Kiki’s leg), but maybe not enough time to forgive the climatic events that take place as this novel builds to a page turner of an ending. Zadie Smith based the basic premise of this novel on E.M. Foster’s Howard’s End. The similarities are there but she used this only as an outline to delve into many of the current concepts she expertly explores. The writing was both descriptive and funny and I look forward to seeing more of this talented English author.
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LibraryThing member bohemiangirl35
Peter Francis James does an outstanding narration of On Beauty.

The Belsey family is recovering from their father Howard's admission of a one-night stand. Kiki, the mother, is the emotional rock of the family, so her pain radiates to everyone. The young adult children (adult children is the
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weirdest phrase but I don't have a better one) have taken sides. Jerome, the oldest, sides with Kiki but needs distance before he can deal with his father. He spends a year in London and ends up living with the family of his father's academic rival and falling in love with their daughter. Zora, a sophomore at Wellington where her father is a professor, defends Howard at all costs. Levi, the youngest, tries to ignore the family drama as he pretends he's from the "hood." Complicating matters even more is the fact that Kiki is a stereotype of an overweight southern black woman, and Howard is a caricature of a white Englishman who never lost his accent and has no connection with/understanding of his "black" children. This rich, liberal, atheist family curses in their regular conversations, and the children call their parents by their first names. They discuss everything, but they don't go beyond the surface of anything important.

Howard's academic rival is a Black British evangelical, and after Jerome's disastrous stay with them in London, the family moves to Massachusetts when Monty, the father, is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington. Drama on the college campus ensues.

Although I enjoyed the audiobook, some parts were jarring. The characters did not grow or develop. Howard's self-centeredness, self-pity and refusal to handle his supposed loved ones with care was absolutely infuriating! At first I thought it was an unrealistic character portrayal, but then I realized that I know some people like that who just refuse to take responsibility for their actions and who feel victimized even when they are the ones causing pain for others. And there are certainly women who tolerate disrespect whether it's disguised with "objectivity" or thrown in their faces.

I didn't understand why Jerome was a peripheral character because he had so much potential. Embracing Christianity despite his father's ridicule, being open and tolerant of other's ideas, supporting his mom during her emotional turmoil made him seem real, but Smith didn't do anything to flesh him out. Zora was a brat and entitled and I did not like her. I thought she should have matured some by the end of the book and I didn't see it. Poor Levi was just not believable. Any real thug could spot a faker like him a mile away, but he manages to be accepted as genuine wherever he goes.

The ending was abrupt. I played the last CD twice because I thought I missed something. Why was the book called On Beauty? The poem by that title in the book seemed so arbitrary. Victoria had a great body and her ass was beautiful, according to everyone who saw her, and the painting that Kiki loved was of a beautiful woman, but I didn't see beauty as an overall theme of the book. Maybe I missed something.
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LibraryThing member bragan
The self-absorbed middle-aged white male academic who spends his time cheating on his wife and gazing into his navel is possibly the single oldest, most widespread, most tedious subject in literary fiction. But Zadie Smith does something really interesting with it: she puts that guy at the center
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of her novel, but then, instead of following him into his self-absorption, she opens up the world around him to us, showing us perspectives you don't usually get in that sort of story. We see what life looks like from many other points of view, including those of his down-to-earth black wife, Kiki, and their mixed-race children, each of whom is struggling to define their identity in their own very different ways. And Smith tackles a dizzying array of themes, from race relations to post-modernism to free speech, some of them directly, some subtly.

Her characters are great, too. (I have a particular fondness for Kiki.) Admittedly, some of them are better-developed than others... All of them feel real, but we spend more time getting to know and understand some of them, and it's often not the ones I expected the novel to focus on. It had something of a tendency to jump around from person to person, sidelining situations I expected to be more important only to develop others tangential to them, in ways that sometimes left me feeling a little-off balance, but ultimately I think it all worked surpriaingly well.
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LibraryThing member williecostello
On Beauty is marvelous fiction. Though it may seem to be a novel about Big Ideas –– race, politics, love, &ct. –– its real appeal lies in Smith's consistent and extraordinary ability to perfectly yet novelly articulate life. More than anything else, it is this observational acuity that
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draws the reader in and propels the novel forward –– and compensates for its "flaws": its contrived plot, its neglect of certain characters, its lack of any strong message (not actually a bad thing). The book's major players are vile and/or pitiable, yet Smith's honest portrayals ensure that they are, first and foremost, human. And therein lies On Beauty's true strength: not as a scathing piece of social satire (it isn't), nor as a repository of contemporary commentary (which, if it is, it is only incidentally), but as a beautiful depiction of a small sliver of human life. Plus, it's damn entertaining.

Make no mistakes: On Beauty is far from all you could want out of a novel. Yet it has so much, and so much of the most important and rarest things, and that's what makes it such an exquisite work.
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LibraryThing member varielle
This is a family drama involving a mixed race couple and their three children in the rarified and competitive world of a college campus. All the disparate lives and loves of the characters are explored , with the childrens' perspectives as the most interesting. The father figures were all pretty
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loathsome personalities with the female protagonists having the most depth of character. The drama of these difficult and fractious lives are fun to explore.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
On the surface, On Beauty is about two families, the Belseys and the Kips. Both are academic families with the fathers holding positions as professors - Howard Belsey at a Boston college and Monty Kip in the UK. Not only do they differ in their opinions of art, they are radically opposed on the
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political spectrum with Monty holding up the views of a religious right-wing conservative and Belsey playing the role of the liberal academic. The characters in this book are diverse and complex and the issues covered are equally broad. Although the plot mostly revolves around marital fidelity, the book raises many questions about race and policies like affirmative action and the cultural divide between the ultra-religious and the liberal intelligentsia. Definitely a book that had me thinking about race and the loss of identity experienced in interracial marriage. My major complaint about this book is that it covers too many issues and seemed to lack cohesion or finality. But maybe the messy indeterminate ending is appropriate for our crazy and diverse society.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
The comic campus novel in the tradition of Lodge or Russo or Chabon or even Amis is an opportunity for large ideas and low farce to intermingle. Howard Belsey is a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like representational paintings. His arch-rival, academically speaking, is Monty Kipps, who is perhaps
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even more famous as a public intellectual and conservative Christian. So naturally when Howard’s university invites Professor Kipps for a visiting fellowship there is going to be trouble. If that weren’t enough (and it isn’t), Howard is about to have the white lie he told to his wife about his recent infidelity open up to reveal an even greater betrayal. Kiki, Howard’s wife of 30 years, is struggling to accommodate his uncharacteristic deceit. And their three children, two in college and one in high school, have their own challenges with representation and loyalty. It’s a heady mix that could lead to fireworks.

It could, but it doesn’t. There seems to be something dampening the field. Perhaps it is the maneuvering that is typically called for in the satirical novel of ideas. Smith’s movement of characters here seems clunky, a bit too pat at times, a bit too forced. While her characters seem to come to life for moments, I didn’t really believe in them throughout. Or perhaps she is too generous to them, insisting that they all have complex motivations and lives whose points of view we need to appreciate. And that makes it feel like Smith had crossed purposes in the writing of this novel, as though there were three or more other novels that she felt more interested in pursuing. As though she didn’t want to commit herself. Which is only a reminder to the reader that the central farce is just not panning out in the excruciating manner it could have done.

There is no question about Zadie Smith being a fine novelist. She is a fine novelist. And there are intimations here of the fine work she will later accomplish with NW. But better to go read that novel and leave this one for now. Regrettably not recommended.
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LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
I wanted to like this book better than I did: it was beautifully written, and most of the characters were interesting, multi-faceted, flawed: convincingly human. I loved the way different kinds of beauty affected the plots and the characters: without fanfare, the theme was woven everywhere. I
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couldn't even count the ways the theme returned. It was, dare I say, quite beautiful.

However, I just can't get around Howard. Now, I'm going to admit to my shame (since I'm an English major) I haven't read Howard's End, and I understand that On Beauty refers to it. Perhaps I'm missing something crucial and elegant and intelligent about Howard. But I found him not only repulsive but a failed character. The only trait that inspired my sympathy - his inability to just enjoy things - seemed so overdrawn I had trouble believing such a person could exist. (And I do know academics.) That trait seemed to make him an allegory instead of a man. Other attempts to lend depth and humanity to his character, give him a history, rang false to me. I couldn't believe in him, and he was a poisonous cancer on all the other characters* who I did believe in, and liked, even when they were unlikeable. And he was the mainest main character, with the most screen time. His actions just made him more banal (big points to the character who told him that) and I kept waiting for a train or a meteor to hit Howard and erase him from these poor people's lives. I waited for a plot device to detonate in his face.

I'll admit that I am sick to death of white male middle-aged protagonists with midlife crisis, as well as white male liberal arts professors, let alone New England ones. So Howard hit several sore points, but I am willing to be convinced: I read this book in spite of Howard (who was obviously ticking a lot of boxes from his first chapter, but seemed otherwise inoffensive) and loved so much of it, in spite of Howard. But Howard was Howard, a vast pustule of Howardness, and the end did not redeem him, or really pay off for me. If the book was trying to make a deeper point about this kind of character, or his pervasiveness, it didn't make that point with me.

The book was sprawling, emotionally involving, ambitious, intensely crafted. Characters like Kiki and Zora were exquisitely well-observed, and made my heart ache with their truth. There were even details about Howard that were unusual and winning at first. The huge number of viewpoints were enlightening and fairly well juggled. They even performed an important function: contrasting, over and over, outsides and insides. The book had many telling moments of really interesting discomfort about race, class, and nationality, even if the explicitly political parts of its plot seemed less insightful and occasionally flabby. Ultimately, while I don't regret any of the time I spent on the book, it didn't gel for me, and I think Howard is in large part why.

*There was only one other character I remember really disliking without understanding (V), and I kept waiting for a section from her viewpoint that would explain her better than the sort of shallow sociological gestures I could make myself and Howard made for me. I felt the book was a little unfair to her.
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LibraryThing member KristySP
Oh Zadie Smith, write more! Write more! This book pulled me out of a reading slump. It takes a lot of skill to be intelligent, funny, and sad all at once, but Zadie pulls it off with aplomb.

I was sad to see this book end.




1594200637 / 9781594200632
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