Beyond the Book: Background information when reading On Beauty

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On Beauty

by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2006, 464 pages

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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 in London where they became known as the Bloomsbury Group. 

Forster's books, including Howards End (1910) explore class, nationality, economic status, and the effect of each of these elements on personal relationships.   Although he lived until 1970 he wrote little fiction after the mid 1920s.  Between 1903 and 1910 he wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room With A View (1908) and Howards End (1910).  He started another novel, Arctic Summer in 1911 but didn't finish it, and completed a sixth novel, Maurice, about homosexuality in 1913, but it was not published until 1971, after his death.  Then there was a gap of fourteen years until his final novel, A Passage To India, in 1924. 

There is no clear explanation as to why he published no novels after this, one theory is that he was unable to write honestly about homosexual life, so chose not to write fiction at all (but did continue writing non-fiction including a couple of biographies, essays and literary criticism).

Zadie Smith was born Sadie Smith but changed her name when she was 14.  Her father is English, her mother Jamaican (having emigrated to the UK in 1969); she was brought up in the borough of Brent, a predominantly working class area of Northwest London.  Her parents divorced when she was in her teens; she has two younger brothers (one of whom is a rapper who goes by the name Doc Brown), a half-sister and a half-brother (from her father's first marriage).  

She was educated at local state schools and then went to King's College, Cambridge to study English Literature.  While at Cambridge she published a few short stories in a collection of student writing - the publisher of the May Anthologies recognized her talent and offered her a contract.  She decided to contact a literary agent who took her on based on just the first chapter of the book that would become White Teeth. She completed White Teeth during her final year at Cambridge and it was published in the UK in 2000 - where it quickly became a bestseller and won a number of awards.

Her second novel, The Autograph Man, was published in 2002, but was not as successful as White Teeth.  She spent 2002-2003 in the USA as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard, where she started working on a series of essays, The Morality of the Novel (not yet published).  In 2005, her third novel, On Beauty, was published.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. 

As a child, the multi-talented Smith was a keen tap dancer and later considered a career as an actor or a journalist (while at university she earned money as a jazz singer).  She is married to Nick Laird, who she met at Cambridge - he is the author of a collection of poems, To a Fault, and a novel, Utterly Monkey (2005).  They live in North London.

This article is from the September 6, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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