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On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Zadie Smith

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7,538191457 (3.63)1 / 492
Title:On Beauty
Authors:Zadie Smith
Info:Penguin Books (2006), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 464 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Pima County Public Library, pcpl, Joel D Valdez Main Library Staff Picks, comedy, academia, marriage, infidelity, politics, race

Work details

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

  1. 51
    Howards End by E. M. Forster (GCPLreader)
    GCPLreader: Read the novel that On Beauty pays homage to.
  2. 00
    Foreign Affairs 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: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (BookshelfMonstrosity)

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English (182)  Dutch (4)  Hebrew (2)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All (191)
Showing 1-5 of 182 (next | show all)
well... hmmm?!

alright - so right up front i want to say that i really adore zadie smith. i find her smart, interesting, and insightful. i will read anything she publishes.

on beauty, though, didn't do a whole lot for me. i love how smith weaves in race, politics, culture, and class (all still so timely and relevant), and while the writing is fine the story felt like a lot of missed potential, and was a very disappointing experience for me. the characters are frustrating. while reading, i easily anticipated next moves in the plot and even though they were cringe-inducing, i read on. i guess was hoping, or thinking, there would be redemption, or consequences, or more depth. the characters are all sloppy and flawed. and most are really narcissistic, and lack personal responsibility for their actions. they wait. they waffle. they're undecided. they wallow. a lot. until kiki finally got herself in motion near the end.... but then totally lost me at the very end when howard notices kiki sitting in his audience. DOH! i wish i had liked this one more. ( )
  Booktrovert | Apr 26, 2017 |
This is a family drama involving a mixed race couple and their three children in the rarified and competitive world of a college campus. All the disparate lives and loves of the characters are explored , with the childrens' perspectives as the most interesting. The father figures were all pretty loathsome personalities with the female protagonists having the most depth of character. The drama of these difficult and fractious lives are fun to explore. ( )
1 vote varielle | Jan 22, 2017 |
Love Zadie Smith. Her writing is what draws me to her work, regardless of subject matter. This novel is full of unlikeable characters but her comedic, almost lyrical style keeps us rolling along and while her books often share similar themes each one is an original. ( )
  essjay1 | Jan 11, 2017 |
The comic campus novel in the tradition of Lodge or Russo or Chabon or even Amis is an opportunity for large ideas and low farce to intermingle. Howard Belsey is a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like representational paintings. His arch-rival, academically speaking, is Monty Kipps, who is perhaps even more famous as a public intellectual and conservative Christian. So naturally when Howard’s university invites Professor Kipps for a visiting fellowship there is going to be trouble. If that weren’t enough (and it isn’t), Howard is about to have the white lie he told to his wife about his recent infidelity open up to reveal an even greater betrayal. Kiki, Howard’s wife of 30 years, is struggling to accommodate his uncharacteristic deceit. And their three children, two in college and one in high school, have their own challenges with representation and loyalty. It’s a heady mix that could lead to fireworks.

It could, but it doesn’t. There seems to be something dampening the field. Perhaps it is the maneuvering that is typically called for in the satirical novel of ideas. Smith’s movement of characters here seems clunky, a bit too pat at times, a bit too forced. While her characters seem to come to life for moments, I didn’t really believe in them throughout. Or perhaps she is too generous to them, insisting that they all have complex motivations and lives whose points of view we need to appreciate. And that makes it feel like Smith had crossed purposes in the writing of this novel, as though there were three or more other novels that she felt more interested in pursuing. As though she didn’t want to commit herself. Which is only a reminder to the reader that the central farce is just not panning out in the excruciating manner it could have done.

There is no question about Zadie Smith being a fine novelist. She is a fine novelist. And there are intimations here of the fine work she will later accomplish with NW. But better to go read that novel and leave this one for now. Regrettably not recommended. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Nov 15, 2016 |
I really enjoyed this and the way it riffed off of Howards End. Smith is such a generous novelist - the characters ,settings, plots, places, dialogues, ideas, everything just flows. It does peter out at the end though - I think all her endings do. Like she's not quite sure how to wrap up all that she started. Still, though, a splendid read that had me staying up late and waking up early to read an extra chapter. ( )
1 vote laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 182 (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
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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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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143037749, Paperback)

In an author's note at the end of On Beauty, Zadie Smith writes: "My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." If it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Forster, perched on a cloud somewhere, should be all puffed up with pride. His disciple has taken Howards End, that marvelous tale of class difference, and upped the ante by adding race, politics, and gender. The end result is a story for the 21st century, told with a perfect ear for everything: gangsta street talk; academic posturing, both British and American; down-home black Floridian straight talk; and sassy, profane kids, both black and white.

Howard Belsey is a middle-class white liberal Englishman teaching abroad at Wellington, a thinly disguised version of one of the Ivies. He is a Rembrandt scholar who can't finish his book and a recent adulterer whose marriage is now on the slippery slope to disaster. His wife, Kiki, a black Floridian, is a warm, generous, competent wife, mother, and medical worker. Their children are Jerome, disgusted by his father's behavior, Zora, Wellington sophomore firebrand feminist and Levi, eager to be taken for a "homey," complete with baggy pants, hoodies and the ever-present iPod. This family has no secrets--at least not for long. They talk about everything, appropriate to the occasion or not. And, there is plenty to talk about.

The other half of the story is that of the Kipps family: Monty, stiff, wealthy ultra-conservative vocal Christian and Rembrandt scholar, whose book has been published. His wife Carlene is always slightly out of focus, and that's the way she wants it. She wafts over all proceedings, never really connecting with anyone. That seems to be endemic in the Kipps household. Son Michael is a bit of a Monty clone and daughter Victoria is not at all what Daddy thinks she is. Indeed, Forster's advice, "Only connect," is lost on this group.

The two academics have long been rivals, detesting each other's politics and disagreeing about Rembrandt. They are thrown into further conflict when Jerome leaves Wellington to get away from the discovery of his father's affair, lands on the Kipps' doorstep, falls for Victoria and mistakes what he has going with her for love. Howard makes it worse by trying to fix it. Then, Kipps is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington and the whole family arrives in Massachusetts.

From this raw material, Smith has fashioned a superb book, her best to date. She has interwoven class, race, and gender and taken everyone prisoner. Her even-handed renditions of liberal and/or conservative mouthings are insightful, often hilarious, and damning to all. She has a great time exposing everyone's clay feet. This author is a young woman cynical beyond her years, and we are all richer for it. --Valerie Ryan

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:49 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering Professor at Wellington College in New England. 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, and 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. Then Jerome, Howard's oldest son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps. Increasingly, 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...… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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