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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‘You can’t phone him,’ said Howard quietly. He moved tactically, out of sight of his family to the left side of their awesome refrigerator. ‘His phone’s out of credit.’

‘What did you say?’ asked Kiki. ‘What are you saying? I can’t hear you.’

Suddenly she was behind him. ‘Where’s the Kippses’ phone number?’ she demanded, although they both knew the answer to this one.

Howard said nothing.

‘Oh, yeah, that’s right,’ said Kiki, ‘it’s in the diary, the diary that was left in Michigan, during the famous conference when you had more important things on your mind than your wife and family.’ ‘Could we not do this right now?’ asked Howard. When you are guilty, all you can ask for is a deferral of the judgement.

‘Whatever, Howard. Whatever – either way it’s me who’s going to be dealing with it, with the consequences of your actions, as usual, so – ’

Howard thumped their icebox with the side of his fist. ‘Howard, please don’t do that. The door’s swung, it’s . . . everything’ll defrost, push it properly, properly, until it – OK: it’s unfortunate. That’s if it really has happened, which we don’t know. We’re just going to have to take it step by step until we know what the hell is going on. So let’s leave it at that, and, I don’t know . . . discuss when we . . . well, when Jerome’s here for one thing and there’s actually something to discuss, agreed? Agreed?’ ‘Stop arguing,’ complained Levi from the other side of the kitchen, and then repeated it loudly.

‘We’re not arguing, honey,’ said Kiki and bent her body at the hips. She tipped her head forward and released her hair from its flame-coloured headwrap. She wore it in two thick ropes of plait that reached to her backside, like a ram’s unwound horns. Without looking up, she evened out each side of the material, threw her head back once more, spun the material twice round and retied it in exactly the same manner but tighter. Everything lifted an inch, and, with this new, authoritative face, she leaned on the table and turned to her children.

‘OK, show’s over. Zoor, there might be a few dollars in the pot by the cactus. Give them to Levi. If not, just lend him some and I’ll pay you back later. I’m a little short this month. OK. Go forth and learn. Anything. Anything at all.’

A few minutes later, with the door closed behind her children, Kiki turned to her husband with a thesis for a face, of which only Howard could know every line and reference. Just for the hell of it Howard smiled. In return he received nothing at all. Howard stopped smiling. If there was going to be a fight, no fool would bet on him. Kiki – whom Howard had once, twenty-eight years ago, thrown over his shoulder like a light roll of carpet, to be laid down, and laid upon, in their first house for the first time – was nowadays a solid two hundred and fifty pounds, and looked twenty years his junior. Her skin had that famous ethnic advantage of not wrinkling much, but, in Kiki’s case the weight gain had stretched it even more impressively. At fifty-two, her face was still a girl’s face. A beautiful tough-girl’s face.

Now she crossed the room and pushed by him with such force that he was muscled into an adjacent rocking chair. Back at the kitchen table, she began violently to pack a bag with things she did not need to take to work. She spoke without looking at him. ‘You know what’s weird? Is that you can get someone who is a professor of one thing and then is just so intensely stupid about everything else? Consult the ABC of parenting, Howie. You’ll find that if you go about it this way, then the exact, but the exact opposite, of what you want to happen will happen. The exact opposite.’

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

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