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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‘Levi,’ said Kiki, ‘honey, I’m interested – do you know who I am? Pay any attention at all to anything that goes on around here? Remember Jerome? Your brother? Jerome no here? Jerome cross big sea to place called England?’

Levi held a pair of sneakers in his hands. These he shook in the direction of his mother’s sarcasm and, scowling, sat down to begin putting them on.

‘So? And what? I know about Kippses? I don’t know nothing about no Kippses.’

‘Jerome – go to school.’

‘Now I’m Jerome too?’

‘Levi – go to school.’

‘Man, why you gotta be all . . . I just ahks a question, that’s all, and you gotta be all . . .’ Here Levi provided an inconclusive mime that gave no idea of the missing word.

‘Monty Kipps. The man your brother’s been working for in England,’ conceded Kiki wearily. It was interesting to Howard to see how Levi had won this concession, by meeting Kiki’s corrosive irony with its opposite.

‘See?’ said Levi, as if it was only by his efforts that decency and sense could be arrived at. ‘Was that hard?’

‘So is that a letter from Kipps?’ asked Zora, coming back down the stairs and up behind her mother’s shoulder. In this pose, the daughter bent over the mother, they reminded Howard of two of Picasso’s chubby water-carriers. ‘Dad, please, I’ve got to help with the reply this time – we’re going to destroy him. Who’s it for? The Republic?’

‘No. No, it’s nothing to do with that – it’s from Jerome, actually. Getting married,’ said Howard, letting his robe fall open, turning away. He wandered over to the glass doors that looked out on to their garden. ‘To Kipps’s daughter. Apparently it’s funny. Your mother thinks it’s hilarious.’

‘No, honey,’ said Kiki. ‘I think we just established that I don’t think it’s hilarious – I don’t think we know what’s happening – this is a seven-line e-mail. We don’t know what that even means, and I’m not gonna get all hepped up about – ’

‘Is this serious?’ interrupted Zora. She yanked the paper from her mother’s hands, bringing it very close to her myopic eyes. ‘This is a fucking joke, right?’

Howard rested his forehead on the thick glass pane and felt the condensation soak his eyebrows. Outside, the democratic East Coast snow was still falling, making the garden chairs the same as the garden tables and plants and mail-boxes and fence-posts. He breathed a mushroom cloud and then wiped it off with his sleeve. ‘Zora, you need to get to class, OK? And you really need to not use that language in my house – Hup! Hap! Nap! No!’ said Kiki, each time masking a word Zora was attempting to begin. ‘OK? Take Levi to the cab rank. I can’t drive him today – you can ask Howard if he’ll drive him, but it doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen. I’ll phone Jerome.’

‘I don’t need drivin’,’ said Levi, and now Howard properly noticed Levi and the new thing about Levi: a woman’s stocking, thin and black, on his head, tied at the back in a knot, with a small inadvertent teat like a nipple, on top.

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

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