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On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty (2005)

by Zadie Smith

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
8,274202672 (3.64)1 / 523
When Howard Belsey's oldest son Jerome falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing Monty Kipps, both families find themselves thrown together, enacting a cultural and personal war against each other.
  1. 61
    Howards End by E. M. Forster (GCPLreader)
    GCPLreader: Read the novel that On Beauty pays homage to.
  2. 00
    Foreign Affairs: A Novel by Alison Lurie (withwill)
  3. 01
    Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (charl08)
    charl08: One a more 'traditional' campus novel, perhaps, but similar themes re English literature as taught at US colleges.
  4. 02
    The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (BookshelfMonstrosity)

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English (193)  Dutch (4)  Hebrew (2)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (202)
Showing 1-5 of 193 (next | show all)
Dysfunctional families - with education (I originally had the word intelligence in the first few words but I think not). I don't think I would have finished it - if not for my book discussion group lol.

Some strong women characters- I think that's what kept the story going. One wins, one dies and others just exist.

Why 2 stars? - I can't choose one star - "I didn't like it" because I did slog through it.. so maybe one and a half would be a better representation of my feelings for the book.

( )
  nwieme | Mar 19, 2020 |
"The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free."

The plot of this novel centres on an academic rivalry between two families, the Belseys and the Kippses. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps are both Rembrandt scholars despite Howard hating the artist and has dedicated his life trying to disprove that Rembrandt was a "genius".

Howard is a English white professor who has spent 10 years without gaining tenure at the fictional Wellington University just outside of Boston. He is about to celebrate 30 years of marriage to Kiki, a 250lb black African American hospital administrator and have three college/university aged children. Howard is an intellectual liberal and an atheist. In contrast Monty Kipps is a black populist academic who is conservative and Christian. Most of the animosity between the two has taken place trans-Atlantic but when Monty arrives at Wellington with his family as a visiting professor their paths are sure to cross.

The book opens with e-mails to Howard's from his eldest son Jerome who is working as an intern in London for Monty where he also falls in love and loses his virginity to the latter's daughter but when Howard blunders into the relationship Jerome is sent packing. In contrast the two wives form an unlikely friendship.

However the central element of this book is whether or not Kiki will divorce Howard, who has recently had an affair with a work colleague. Before the affair came to light Kiki had regarded Howard as being her best friend so the unexpected friendship with Monty's wife,Carlene, comes as a welcome boom to her. Like their husbands, they are opposites politically and spiritually but come to realise that they also have things in common. They are both black non-academics in a largely white, elite neighbourhood, with children of similar ages and as their friendship grows it becomes one based on shared values rather that social expediency unlike most similar relationships within this novel.

As you would expect the reader’s sympathy quickly lies with Kiki, who comes across as more open and generous who unlike her husband appreciates beauty — whether in people, art or nature simply for the pleasure that it gives. Kiki is therefore becomes the emotional heart of a novel where many of the other characters are portrayed as preoccupied and often selfish.

Beauty is whether in art or nature is as the title suggests an important theme of this book but is far from being the only one. Race, religion, friendship, feminism, illness and death, family and love also feature heavily. However what is really important is the difference between the beauty on the outside as compared with that which is within. Howard and Monty are obsessed with paintings looking for flaws or the artist's motivation/ viewpoint for them but are incapable of seeing what is happening right in front of them. Zora, Howard's daughter, is seen as forthright and determined but this is just show as inside she is nervous and feels friendless. In contrast Vee, Monty's daughter, is gorgeous on the outside but is pretty shallow on the inside and misinterprets sex with desire whilst Levi, Howard's youngest son, looks for affinity with a group of Haitians despite having never visited the country.

There is a certain humour in the prose but it just doesn't last for me. I found the final quarter of this book disappointing and that it ultimately tended to slip into some tired old cliches meaning that I felt that it rather let the remainder down. The reader was also left with far too many loose ends. An OK read but also at times somewhat overblown, a missed opportunity that could have been improved with a little prudent editing. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Feb 27, 2020 |
Probably one of my fave reads this year. Wholly engrossing story and such rich development of characters that I was pulled in all their directions--except maybe Howard, who is a loathsome turd. A helluva book; a helluva writer. ( )
  Sonya_W | Feb 5, 2020 |
Smith looks at the lives of two professors' families in a small New England town and the people around them.

This book is loosely based on E.M. Forster's novel Howards End, but set in the modern day and (mostly) in America. In the beginning of the novel, I quite enjoyed this. Smith used the bare bones of that plot to talk about class, race, and gender in meaningful ways. (To be fair, Forster did this to an extent too, but his concept of race was the English versus the Germans.) It was also fun to see how she updated certain things -- like Leonard Bast's umbrella becomes Carl Thomas's portable music player.

However, the scale is much larger here as there are far more characters to explore. That is what I found to be the problem with the novel (for me at least). There are so many characters that some of them end up getting short shrift in their stories. As a result, many of them seemed distant at best and unlikeable at worst. Really, the only character I cared for was Kiki. While having likeable characters isn't always the end all be all, it's difficult to really enjoy a book that is pretty much a character study when the characters aren't great.

And, as much as I didn't necessarily like the endings for many of the characters in Howards End, at least they got endings. Here everything felt completely unresolved. After investing a great deal of time in them, almost all the characters were as they were in the beginning of the novel -- little growth or awareness attained, let alone tangible differences in their lives.

While it had a strong start, this novel went on for what seemed to be interminably long to me, which is why I ended up rating it fairly low. It felt like Smith was trying to make a point with some of the subplots (e.g., the Haitian refugees), but the minutiae of Howard's sex life, Claire's poetry class, Zora's unrequited crush, etc. etc. etc. drowned out any real big message.

On the plus side, the audiobook narrator did an awesome job with a large cast of characters to voice, all with very different accents and inflections. ( )
  sweetiegherkin | Jan 20, 2020 |
Good but not very memorable. Some of the ideas of beauty are explored but I wish the Rembrandt theme had have been more detailed - I couldn't quite understand it's importance yet it clearly was. Rembrandt adored Saskia but I couldn't see the parallel with Howard and Kiki. Maybe there wasn't one! ( )
1 vote sachesney | Sep 22, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 193 (next | show all)
On Beauty" is that rare comic novel about the divisive cultural politics of the new century likely to amuse readers on the right as much as those on the left. (Not that they'll necessarily be laughing in the same places.) Yet Smith is up to more as well: she wants to rise above the fray even as she wallows in it, to hit a high note of idealism rather than sink into the general despair. How radical can you be? Blame it on her youth.
Beautifully observed details of clothing, weather, cityscapes and the bustling human background of drivers, shoppers and passers-by are constantly being folded into the central flow of thought, feeling and action, giving even the most mundane moments - Levi riding a bus into Boston, Howard setting up a projector - a dense, pulsing life.
On Beauty is quieter. There is a complicated story making up by richness of implication what it lacks in exuberance. The culture of the Boston campus is set among the other cultures such a city harbours. Carl, the outsider who enters the story because of the muddle at the concert, is far from being a replica of Leonard Bast. He’s an exponent of rap culture – and it is a culture, unlike Bast’s pathetic aspirations. The power of his rap has to be explained, and indeed the author intervenes personally to endorse it: ‘the present-day American poets, the rappers’. The mufflered pink-cheeked charm of a New England campus in winter is very agreeably rendered. The row between Professor Belsey and Kiki when she finds out he’s been cheating is as deft as anybody could make it, he with his stumbling, evasive academic dialect and she with her ‘personal’ language and naturally inflexible notions of fidelity and honour.

In a late scene Kiki is sorting out her children’s accumulated belongings. As she is carrying two bags of her elder son’s ‘pre-growth-spurt clothes’, we are told:

Last year, she had not thought she would still be in this house, in this marriage, come spring. But here she was, here she was. A tear in the garbage bag freed three pairs of pants and a sweater. Kiki crouched to pick these up and, as she did so, the second bag split too. She had packed them too heavy. The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.

What makes this passage brilliant is that the sententia at the end, though it may be true, is somehow made ironical because it is Kiki, there among all the random evidence of her love, who is uttering it, and not some cheat, some intellectual, some person of recognised authority. She is the measure of Zadie Smith’s powers at 30, Forster’s age when he published Howards End.

» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Zadie Smithprimary authorall editionscalculated
Eggermont, MoniqueTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pouwels, KittyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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We refuse to b each other. H.J.Blackham
For my dear Laird.
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One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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En grotesk og morsom beretning om fjendskabet mellem to kunsthistorikere. Om universitetsliv, om kærlighed og sex og om at blive voksen.
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Average: (3.64)
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1 44
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2 145
2.5 33
3 527
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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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