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On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Zadie Smith

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7,113173505 (3.63)1 / 456
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. 41
    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 (164)  Dutch (4)  Hebrew (2)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (173)
Showing 1-5 of 164 (next | show all)
According to the New York Times this was one of the 10 best books of 2015. I wish I could agree. The fictional college of Wellington offers a backdrop for some interesting characters and a lot of campus intrigue, but it took me a long time to really get into the book. Enjoyed the ending more than much of the rest of the book. ( )
  VashonJim | Sep 5, 2015 |
This is a tricky one. Smith is never less than highly competent, intelligent and insightful, and yet I was ultimately unimpressed. Depending on where I was up to when you asked me, my rating would vary wildly as some characters and story lines I found compelling while others, in particularly that of the horrible ("main" character) Howard, were annoying and disappointing. ( )
  Vivl | Apr 13, 2015 |

I am probably not quite smart enough to review this book, but I'll give it my best shot.

Clearly, it is a book about perceiving and perceptions of beauty, whether that's body shape, rendered in art, elderly vs. youth, or the natural world (not much of that). But there's so much else in here that I can't fit into that theme. Sure, a book doesn't (and probably shouldn't) have only one theme, but there's a whole separate set of treatises on the role of academia, all kinds of politics, and, of course, race and ethnicity. It's a long book, and it can basically hold all of this, but it means I got lost in the comings and goings of the characters.

So, I read the book and was intrigued by the multiple lives and their method of conversing and communicating with others, but in essence it felt like a set of short stories strung together with a common thread among them. I kept being thrown off the scent into the next story, trying to figure out how it hung with the rest.

Also, most of this felt like an apology. Oh, Levi is acting this way for this reason. And Carl has a different reason for acting as he does. And Kiki. And ridiculous, dumb-ass Howard. Why apologize for how different people think and react? You're telling, not showing, then. Isn't that a cardinal sin of writing? ( )
  khage | Mar 16, 2015 |
All hail Zadie Smith! ( )
  cattylj | Feb 28, 2015 |
When I say I am not a people person, I mean I can find five reasons to hate someone, anyone, within ten minutes of meeting them in real life. As consequence of this and the desire to not let overwhelming anger ruin my life, I am always putting myself in the other's place, years of which have both calmed me down and sharpened my analysis to the quick. However much I initially dislike you, I will always, always, always respect you, and if you're not a complete and utter asshole and/or hypocrite who never seriously considers what others have to say, I will reconcile myself with you in short order. The same goes for personas in books, which is why the whole concept of "likable" characters makes me laugh. If I factored that into my evaluation of literature, I'd be left with very few successes.

Despite what many of these reviews complain about, most of these characters are not assholes. Hypocrites, yes, but with a realness with which neither they nor the author may be condemned for. One of them is indeed a very typical asshole, but in such a fully explicated way that he is wielded as a veritable scythe through the ivory tower insipidity that is academia. This straight white male is a professor, a critic, a derider of custom and slayer of sentiment, so liberal in politics and so solipsistic in existence, able to get by in a world that encourages education without empathy at every turn in order to churn out glorified hipsters in the highest echelons of college campuses all across the US. In his eyes, nothing is sacred except for his dick, far more emblematic of a flawed society spewing out the same shit different days than any fault of the author, and which would hardly prove for a uniquely inspiring narrative had Smith not populated his world with characters that called him out on it at every turn. This includes the much objectified woman of his desires, who despite never having a share of that third person point of view is nothing less than fully and heartbreakingly human. Now that takes true writerly talent.

Now, I loved [Howards End], I did. However, the ending was too clean, too circumspect, too full of its own glorious aspirations to really ponder the implications of demographics on personal relations, and ultimately in great need of satirization. Teaching that book to students today will give you exuberant know nothings with nary a thought as to the twisting of privilege in the smallest facet of daily life, a truth fended off every second of every hour with empty courtesy, gentrified fortresses, and the avoidance of certain subjects. Politics, religion, pay check. Beware of the other side of the fence, less you find out how much and how so you use and are used. There's no success there, neither your money nor your life.

Liberalism tries. As Smith displays in full, liberalism tries, but is easily co-opted without complete understanding, or even the willingness to understand, for it is one thing to condemn racism and sexism and everything else and quite another to view one's life through the paradigm forever on. It is tiring, it is hard, and quite frankly who has time for all that when there's a 40+ hour work week and kids and taxes and pull up your bootstraps 'cause no one's ready or willing to coddle you no matter how much your nature and nurture screwed you over long before you were born. Never mind your beautiful passion for what society considers wrong for all the wrong reasons. Never mind the judgment based on white heternormative masculinity, women deepening their voice in speaking classes, black men fending off the fearful stares with constant reassurance, both expending energy that could have been wonderfully devoted elsewhere if not for their body and soul.

In the end, hate people if you will. Hate them, but always grant them reason to live. Always grant them reason to exist in your eyes, regardless of what promotions they have the power to make possible, what length of your time they are worth based on the connections you hypothesize out of the tone of their voice and color of their skin, how much you can squeeze out of them before going back to that circle habituated to whatever power you have as a youth/mother/daughter/father/son you call family. You have the right to living your life without actively seeking out danger, but do not avoid a chance to communicate out of guilt, or shame, or entitlement. You were compromised coming into this world by both privilege and oppression; you will gain nothing by splintering off in your own little bell jar of social justice.

If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

-Zora Neale Hurston

Humans are social creatures. There is, despite the hypocritical politickings, something beautiful worth living for in the halls of thought. Rome wasn't built in a day. In other words, go listen to some rap, or whatever other medium you have closed yourself off from without ever really knowing why or considering what drives your fellow human beings who so rapturously partake of it. Talk is cheap, silence is death, and we might as well like or dislike the tomato while explaining why; something may come of it yet. ( )
1 vote Korrick | Jul 22, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 164 (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.

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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)

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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)

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