Summary and book reviews of On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty

by Zadie Smith

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

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Book Summary

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.

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.

Excerpt
On Beauty

One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father:

To: HowardBelsey@fas.Wellington.edu

From: Jeromeabroad@easymail.com

Date: 5 November

Subject:

Hey, Dad – basically I’m just going to keep on keeping on with these mails – I’m no longer expecting you to reply, but I’m still hoping you will, if that makes sense.

Well, I’m really enjoying everything. I work in Monty Kipps’s own office (did you know that he’s actually Sir Monty??), which is in the Green Park area. It’s me and a Cornish girl called Emily. She’s cool. There’re also three more yank interns downstairs (one from Boston!), so I feel pretty much at home. I’m a kind of an intern with the duties of a PA – organizing lunches, filing, talking to people on the phone, that sort of thing. Monty’s work is much more than just the academic stuff: he’s involved with the Race Commission, ...

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Introduction

On Beauty, Zadie Smith's third novel, is both a tribute to and a riff on English novelist E. M. Forster's Howards End, updated as an exploration of the politics of contemporary life. In a book as bold and funny as it is precise and insightful, Smith applies her dazzling powers of description to a middle-class family in the United States. The Belseys are based at a fictional college called Wellington, where earthy African American Kiki, abstract—and English—Howard, and their three searching children seem the picture of modern liberal success. Yet in spite of their outward harmony and privilege, all are eagerly pursuing private agendas. Jerome, the eldest child, is alienated from his secular and ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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).

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Media Reviews

The New York TImes - Michiko Kakutani

On Beauty opens out to provide the reader with a splashy, irreverent look at campus politics, political correctness and the ways different generations regard race and class, but its real focus is on personal relationships. Like Forster, Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice, giving us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane.

Library Journal

The characters are too strained and generally unsympathetic to engage one in their troubles or dreams. Yet Smith's descriptions of some of the personas, particularly the opposing matriarchs and their younger children, suggest a looser story that could have been a lot more fun.

Kirkus Reviews

In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty's only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone.

Booklist

Intermingled with the analysis of family and marriage are commentaries on affirmative action, liberal versus conservative, and prejudices in many forms. This is a boisterous, funny, poignant, and erudite novel that should firmly establish Smith as a literary force of nature.

Bookmarks

[Smith's] wonderful ear for dialogue, as well as her uncanny ability to inhabit characters from different walks of life, is truly extraordinary.

Publishers Weekly

This is a superb novel....The book is funny and infuriating, crammed with multiple shades of love and lust, midlife and teenlife crises.

The Guardian (UK) - Stephanie Merritt

Zadie Smith's homage to EM Forster, On Beauty, confirms her as a writer of remarkable wit and originality.

The Times - Helen Dunmore

Zadie Smith believes that she is not going to be a great novelist — and God knows very few are — then she is certainly an intuitive, incisive and creative critic of the great novel that is Howards End.

Reader Reviews

tatoutheangel

About On Beauty...
I highly recommend to read the novel though there are boring parts. Many people will identify themselves with the characters of the novel. Zadie Smith tried to tackle many interesting issues in the novel. She didn't focus exclusively on ...   Read More

mjc

It was ok
This book was ok, it was a bit boring, but yet I wanted to read on. After I finished I thought I wouldn't recommend it, but now that I think about it, and realize that there was a fair bit good content considering it was about a prof and his family....   Read More

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Beyond the Book

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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