Excerpt from On Beauty by Zadie Smith, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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On Beauty

By Zadie Smith

On Beauty
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2005,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2006,
    464 pages.

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‘Baby – try being less facetious,’ she suggested. She reached for an apple and began to cut it up with one of their small knives with the translucent handles, dividing it into irregular chunks. She ate these slowly, one piece after another.

Howard pulled his hair back from his face with both hands. ‘Sorry – I just – you laughed, so I thought maybe something was funny.’

‘How am I meant to react?’ said Kiki, sighing. She laid down her knife and reached out for Levi, who was just passing with his bowl. Grabbing her robust fifteen-year-old by his denim waistband, she pulled him to her easily, forcing him down half a foot to her sitting level so that she could tuck the label of his basketball top back inside the collar. She put her thumbs on each side of his boxer shorts for another adjustment, but he tugged away from her. ‘Mom, man . . .’

‘Levi, honey, please pull those up just a little . . . they’re so low . . . they’re not even covering your ass.’

‘So it’s not funny,’ concluded Howard. It gave him no cheer, digging in like this. But he was still going to persist with this line of questioning, even though it was not the tack upon which he had hoped to start out, and he understood it was a straight journey to nowhere helpful.

‘Oh, Lord, Howard,’ said Kiki. She turned to face him. ‘We can do this in fifteen minutes, can’t we? When the kids are – ’ Kiki rose a little in her seat as she heard the lock of the front door clicking and then clicking again. ‘Zoor, honey, get that please, my knee’s bad today. She can’t get in, go on, help her – ’

Zora, eating a kind of toasted pocket filled with cheese, pointed to the television.

‘Zora – get it now, please, it’s the new woman, Monique – for some reason her keys aren’t working properly – I think I asked you to get a new key cut for her – I can’t be here all the time, waiting in for her – Zoor, will you get off your ass – ’

‘Second arse of the morning,’ noted Howard. ‘That’s nice. Civilized.’

Zora slipped off her stool and down the hallway to the front door. Kiki looked at Howard once more with a questioning penetration, which he met with his most innocent face. She picked up her absent son’s e-mail, lifted her glasses from where they rested on a chain upon her impressive chest and replaced them on the end of her nose.

‘You’ve got to hand it to Jerome,’ she murmured as she read. ‘That boy’s no fool . . . when he needs your attention he sure knows how to get it,’ she said, looking up at Howard suddenly and separating syllables like a bank teller counting bills. ‘Monty Kipps’s daughter. Wham, bam. Suddenly you’re interested.’

Howard frowned. ‘That’s your contribution.’

‘Howard – there’s an egg on the stove, I don’t know who put it on, but the water’s evaporated already – smells nasty. Switch it off, please.’

That’s your contribution?’

Howard watched his wife calmly pour herself a third glass of clamato juice. She picked this up and brought it to her lips, but then paused where she was and spoke again.

‘Really, Howie. He’s twenty. He’s wanting his daddy’s attention – and he’s going the right way about it. Even doing this Kipps internship in the first place – there’s a million internships he could have gone on. Now he’s going to marry Kipps junior? Doesn’t take a Freudian. I’m saying, the worst thing we can do is to take this seriously.’

Excerpted from On Beauty, (c) 2005 Zadie Smith. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved.

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