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On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Zadie Smith

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7,150177498 (3.64)1 / 459
Title:On Beauty
Authors:Zadie Smith
Info:Penguin Books (2006), Paperback, 464 pages
Collections:Read and Released
Tags:fiction, audio, family drama

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 (166)  Dutch (4)  Hebrew (2)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (175)
Showing 1-5 of 166 (next | show all)
Although much of the negative criticism voiced here is meanspirited and weirdly personal, this is a flawed novel. The narrative held my attention--I devoured the novel in three or four days--and its questions about/insights into race, family ("Each couple is its own vaudeville act": yes indeedy), hybridity, and the relationship between beauty, ethics and the real are often provocative. But I have to concede that Zadie Smith has no ear for American, African American, or Southern American speech (the character of Christian is especially unsuccessful); that she can be crudely schematic in depicting race relations in the US; that she has no idea how tenure works in the US or even when Thanksgiving is (I'm pretty certain she has it falling on a Friday): in short, I'll admit that she was not fully prepared to write a novel with a convincing American setting.

Parts of the novel display writerly pizzazz and pithy social observation: the academic party early on is pretty much a tour de force. However, I found some sections of the novel to be cringe-inducingly unrealistic (and not just the sex scenes). And while I differ from others here in finding Kiki and Levi to be well-developed--you warm to them as the novel unfolds--I have to agree that some of the major characters never acquire much dimension. ( )
  middlemarchhare | Nov 25, 2015 |
Zadie Smith's work was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion about books I trust, and I was not disappointed. Her prose is fantastic, especially in places such as the description of Mozart's Requiem. She also writes characters that elicit the same feelings as people do (I loved Kiki, I was annoyed by Zora, etc). Overall, a wonderful book that I had a hard time putting down. ( )
  Marjorie_Jensen | Nov 12, 2015 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 166 (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
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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Book description
En grotesk og morsom beretning om fjendskabet mellem to kunsthistorikere. Om universitetsliv, om kærlighed og sex og om at blive voksen.
Haiku summary

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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Average: (3.64)
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