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On Beauty

A Novel

Smith, Zadie

(Book - 2005)
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
On Beauty
Print
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. 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: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. 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. Or the encore. Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and 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. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it? Set on both sides of the Atlantic, Zadie Smith's third novel is a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people's deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, c2005
ISBN: 1594200637
Branch Call Number: FICTION SMITH
Characteristics: 445 p. ;,25 cm

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From Library Staff

2005. This smart, funny comedy of multicultural manners set in academia is full of well-observed interesting characters.


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A great novel, both very traditional with an omniscient narrator and very modern in its subject matter: mixed-race marriages, parent-child dynamics, academic politics, infidelity, and of course: class. The novel is sprawling and takes in tons of themes and relationships yet Smith manages to have a very light-handed touch and plenty of humor and arresting insight to hold the reader's attention to the very last page.

The novel is centered on the mixed-race mixed-nationality family of Howard and Kiki Belsey. He's a transplanted British art historian in a posh American college town, she is a non-intellectual African-American woman with roots in Florida (home to some of the oldest all-black communities in America). This pairing of opposites somehow works, because Smith fills out her characters so skillfully and affectionately. Howard and Kiki have three college-age kids each with their own dramas and subplots: the eldest Jerome is a sensitive boy and a committed Christian who feels alienated from his violently anti-clerical father; Zora is a ruthlessly careerist alpha personality who inherited her mother's physique and her father's contempt for any form of commitment; and the youngest, Levi, is in his last year of high school and the only one to break away from his cloistered, privileged family. He gets drawn into the lives and pain of the Haitian immigrants who sell knockoffs on the sidewalks of Boston and work as cleaners at the fictional Wellington College (an obvious stand-in for Harvard or any other elite, smug university).

The novel's events are driven by the Belseys' intricate relations with another family, that of Montague Kipps, a rightwing Caribbean-British celebrity intellectual whom Howard loathes but with whose wife Carlene Kiki develops a tender, short-lived friendship.

There are at least five more peripheral characters in On Beauty, all of them brought to life on the page by Smith's uncanny gift for characterization. In just a few brushstrokes she's able to fashion completely believable characters such as Carl, the strikingly handsome working-class black youth from Roxbury; Dean French, the buttoned-up, arid academic head of the College; and Erskine Jegede, an always nattily-dressed Nigerian academic and colleague of Howard who's mastered the wiles of academic politics.
Each scene in On Beauty is masterfully rendered, and as many readers have noted there is plenty of laugh-out-loud humor (especially the sex scene) and insights into the human condition. In this novel Smith really is in the mode of the great 19th and 20th century realists, but with a much lighter touch. The novel's very last scene is incredibly beautiful, achieving the impossible feat of making us empathize with an otherwise thoroughly contemptible and risible man. I felt that rare thing one feels with truly exceptional novels: sadness that it had to end and a wish that it was longer.

On Beauty is a thoroughly satisfying novel. A comedy set primarily in academia, author Smith explores issues of marriage and infidelity, politics (academic and otherwise), race, class and art. Part satirical, part serious and usually quite funny—particularly the funniest sex scene I’ve ever read. Smith is generous with her cast of likeable characters, the one exception being blowhard professor Howard. How did Kiki stay married to him all these years?

A great novel, with great characters.

Apr 17, 2013
  • joliebergman rated this: 2 stars out of 5.

I guess I just didn't get it.

Dec 17, 2012
  • imnlove rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Engrossing! This book has become my one of my top 10 favorites. Zadie Smith is a memorizing storyteller. She astutely expatiates on self-identity/self-discovery struggles, particularly faced by mixed-race and minority persons. This book captures my experience, as a black woman, living in racially homogenous Boston (in comparison to my native Chicago). However, it is not only for "P.O.C.s" (people of color). She offers a glimpse into the hardships of marriage, middle-agedom, and the politics and reconditeness of academia. Just read the book!

Nov 09, 2012
  • jennywile rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Really amazing great book

Jun 08, 2012
  • natasha007 rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Another great novel set at a university. If you liked White Teeth, you will definitely like this.

Mar 16, 2012
  • danielestes rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

This novel is a slice of several cultures I have little experience with: East Coast black urbanites, Ivy League university life, mixed-race families, London, art history and beat poetry. Many have criticized the story for its inauthentic dialogue and slow pacing. I can't speak for the dialogue except the words sound true to me though I do understand why others had problems with it. The apparent slower pacing worked well, I thought, because the prose was much more introspective. This book allows you to immerse yourself in each scene and each exchange of dialogue, and the added commentary is more like our own loose reflections on daily life, which give it a realism that others might find slow or irrelevant.

I selected On Beauty for my book club and no one finished it. It is worth noting that few people tried, but those that did had a hard time enjoying it. Please do not pick it up if you expect to be engrossed right away -- I had to get past the halfway point to start enjoying the characters.

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