Two families, the Belseys and the Kipps, live beautiful lives. Don't they?
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.
Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?
Set on both sides of the Atlantic, Zadie Smith's third novel is a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people's deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.
One may as well begin with Jeromes e-mails to his father:
Date: 5 November
Hey, Dad basically Im just going to keep on keeping on with these mails Im no longer expecting you to reply, but Im still hoping you will, if that makes sense.
Well, Im really enjoying everything. I work in Monty Kippss own office (did you know that hes actually Sir Monty??), which is in the Green Park area. Its me and a Cornish girl called Emily. Shes cool. Therere also three more yank interns downstairs (one from Boston!), so I feel pretty much at home. Im a kind of an intern with the duties of a PA organizing lunches, filing, talking to people on the phone, that sort of thing. Montys work is much more than just the academic stuff: hes involved with the Race Commission, ...
What a wise and wonderful novel On Beauty is. On opening it I wondered what possible interest I could find in reading a novel of middle-class angst set in a liberal arts college, but how wrong I was. Smith deliciously skewers the insularities and hypocrisies of academia while exploring family, race and morality...
(Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).
Full Review (1236 words).
On Beauty is a tribute to E. M. Forster's Howards End, but set in
a contemporary American setting. The Belseys (like Forster's Schlegels)
become entangled with another family whose conventional household appears to be
the opposite of their own but across the divide the wives form a friendship that
leads to a valuable legacy being bequeathed by one woman to the other, leading
to concealment and conflict.
Edward Morgan Forster was born in 1879 in London and educated at Cambridge. While at Cambridge he became a member of a group called the Apostles (formerly the Cambridge Conversazione Society) who discussed moral, intellectual and aesthetic issues. Many of this group, including Forster, later congregated...
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