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On Beauty by Zadie Smith
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On Beauty (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Zadie Smith

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7,394188475 (3.63)1 / 483
Member:RavenousReaders
Title:On Beauty
Authors:Zadie Smith
Info:Penguin Books (2006), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 464 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:
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: 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 (179)  Dutch (4)  Hebrew (2)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All (188)
Showing 1-5 of 179 (next | show all)
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. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Before starting the novel, I was reading up on Zadie Smith and I stumbled across the definition for hysterical realism (read this article for its origins and full description) and I was struck by how accurately it described the genre of White Teeth and, after reading the novel, also On Beauty. The characters are certainly not anyone we'll meet in real life but in their exaggerate caricatures, we get a perhaps-better sense of real life.

The Kipps and Belseys are exactly the annoying Chalfen snobs from White Teeth, but the way Smith deals with race and love and sex and family and women, and all in her fantastically manic prose, it's easy to see why she's the darling of modern literature. I particularly connected with her portrayal of race and academia. I liked that even though race played a big part in the book, due to the fact it is a book, we cannot see skin colours at all, yet we have to keep remembering the colours of each character, like some kind of racism paradox.

One of my pet peeves is technical jargon out of its natural habitat and another is unnecessarily long multiple-prefixed-and-suffixed words, a problem particularly endemic to specialists areas which survive on subjectivity like English or art history. Smith purposely captures it all so well here, especially through hate-inducing Howard. There are some truly beautiful turns of phrases, my favourite being Her body directed her to a new personality.. Foreknowledge of Howard's End by Forster would undoubtedly strengthen a reader's appreciation of the novel, but the absence of it did not detract from my enjoyment. Recommended for Smith fans who just want a Smith-continuation rather than a Smith-improvement.

Aside: the America Smith describes still feels too British for me, I kept hearing British accents in the dialogues. ( )
  kitzyl | Sep 28, 2016 |
Definitely witty, but not really lovable. This spot-on satire of the world of universities and academia is laugh-out-loud funny. However, I found most of the characters unlikable, and any attempts to make them relatable - Zora's unrequited crush, for example - just made them seem pathetic. I know that this book is an homage to Howards End, and some scenes are pretty much lifted from the original, but I think it ultimately failed to deliver Forster's message of "Only connect." ( )
  doryfish | Aug 15, 2016 |
"What are the truly beautiful things in life - and how far will you go to get them?"
  MerrittGibsonLibrary | Jul 13, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 179 (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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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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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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