Mar 6, 2008

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty opens with Jerome Belsey’s e-mails to his father. Jerome is the only religious member of his family, and he has greatly irritated his deeply secular father not only by converting to Christianity, but by accepting a summer internship in London working for his father’s intellectual nemesis, a highly conservative right-wing Trinidadian academic by the name of Monty Kipps. Jerome has a short lived romance with Victoria Kipps, and although the drama that ensues is over quickly, the paths of these two very different families are soon to cross again.

Howard Belsey is an English academic who is working on a book that will supposedly deconstruct Rembrandt. His wife, Kiki, is a strong and assertive African-American woman. Their three children are Levi, Zora and the aforementioned Jerome. Levi is the youngest, a teenager who is searching for his identity. The ambitious Zora plans to follow her father’s footsteps into the academic world, and Jerome is having trouble getting over his heartbreak.

When Monty Kipps is invited to join Wellington, the same New England university where Howard Belsey teaches, the conflict between the two takes over the entire faculty. Meanwhile, Victoria Kipps is taking Howard Belsey’s classes, and Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps become friends.

This plot summary doesn’t even begin to make On Beauty sound as good as it actually is. Oh, how I loved this book. It reminded me of Middlesex in some ways, and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can pay a book. While I was reading it, I found myself thinking that I should read books like this more often. But then again, how many books like this are there? Books this powerful, this intricate, this graceful?

But why did I love it so much, you ask? First of all, I loved it for the superb writing. Zadie Smith's command of language is impressive. She has a wonderful, subtle and intelligent sense of humour. She can make a seemingly simple sentence sneak at you and make you want to cry. And then there's her attention to detail; there's the things she leaves unsaid; there’s the sheer elegance of her prose.

I was going to pick a passage to share here, but if I pick one I’ll have to pick two, and then I’ll find myself picking pick three and four and five, and this post is going to be long enough as it is. Believe me, there are many, many memorable passages in this book.

The second reason why I loved On Beauty so much were the characters. It was the characters that had me hooked from page one. They are complex, fascinating, and quirky, but also human, fallible and very real. They are in some ways typifications, while at the same time defying the very concept of types. Even the ones that aren't exactly likeable are wonderful to read about. One of the reasons why I couldn't put this book down was because I wanted to spend more time in the company of these people. I wanted to see their relationships develop; I wanted to discover their innermost secrets; I wanted to know their fears, ambitions and dreams.

But what, after all, is this book about? It’s about the struggle of conservative and liberal ideas in the academic world (and Zadie Smith doesn’t reduce it to anything as simplistic as “liberals are good and conservatives are bad” or the opposite. If what she says could be reduced to anything at all, it would be to something along the lines of “people are complex in many ways”). It’s about academic life in general in a fictional town near Boston. It’s also about beauty and lust and desire and loss, and self-discovery and marriage and friendship and love. Plus it’s about family, racial tensions and identity, the situation in Haiti, subcultures, music, and painting. To sum it up: it’s about life.

There were certain things in the novel that I particularly loved. The friendship between Kiki Beasley and Carlene Kipps, for starters. These two women become friends despite their differences, despite their husbands’ enmity, despite the drama involving both their families. Carlene believes things that would make any feminist cringe: that while men live for ideas and projects, women live for their families; that it is not fit for a woman to criticize her husband under any circumstances. Kiki’s whole life is based on the opposite principles. And yet these two women simply enjoy each other’s company. When they first meet, Carlene recites to Kiki a line from a poem that she likes: There is such shelter in each other. The scenes in the novel in each the two women are together are very touching scenes.

I also loved the exquisite way the novel describes a thirty year long marriage, the things that hold it together and the things that break it apart. There’s loss, of course, but there’s also tenderness, familiarity and companionship. And, along with these, there’s cruelty and loneliness and pain. The contradictory emotions are so intertwined that they cannot be separated, and all together they form a picture – a picture of a lifetime together (an almost inconceivable amount of time for someone like me, whose life has not yet been thirty years long), brilliantly portrayed in all its beauty and its frailty in the pages of a book.

On Beauty made me laugh as often as it made me think, and almost as often as it made me cry. This was my first experience with Zadie Smith, but, as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s taking all my self-restraint to keep me from ordering White Teeth and The Autograph Man right now. I really look forward to reading more of her work.

Other opinions:
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore
Save Ophelia
Rhinoa's Ramblings
What Kate's Reading
Lost in a Good Story


  1. It was the characters I loved most about this book as well, they had me hooked from the first page. You definitely need to read White Teeth if you liked this. I am definitely looking forward to reading Middlesex even more now if you think it is like On Beauty.

  2. oh wow, I need to move this one on the priority pile! I also have white teeth,which I planned to read before that, cause she wrote it first,but now I don't know:p

  3. Wonderful review! I haven't allowed myself to buy a copy since I already have her first 2 books although I finally did read 'White Teeth' last year. But I still have 'The Autograph Man' here to read so I've been trying to be good. Your review is making me very tempted though! :)

  4. I've never read anything by this author but I read lots of great reviews about this book! Looks like I've to add this to my wishlist. ;)

  5. Rhinoa: It reminded me of Middlesex in the sense that both are family stories, both have a large cast of secondary character with fascinating backgrounds, and both deal with wider social issues while telling a very personal story at the same time. Also, both are very well written - Middlesex even more so. I really do hope you enjoy it. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on White Teeth.

    Valentina: I've heard great things about White Teeth too. Whichever you decide to pick up first, I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    Tanabata: Sorry for tempting you :P I think The Autograph Man is the less acclaimed of her books, but that of course doesn't mean it's not good too. I want to pick up White Teeth next and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

    Melody: You have to indeed!

  6. as you can imagine, there was a lot of noise about this novel when it came out, but none of it actually managed to capture what the novel was about like you have.

    i can't remember what all the talk was, but all of it put me off. so much of it (i see now) was shallow, and talking about smith herself, or a small part of the context within which it was written... or just lots of things that actually, in all honesty, missed the point.

    when books come out people would do well to read reviews like yours rather than just babbling on n tv while sitting on sofas or vomiting out their nonsense in newspapers.

    whereas before i was probably never going to read this book, now i am very interested. thanks for the brilliant review!

  7. "...struggle of conservative and liberal ideas in the academic world..." That alone is enough to sell me on this one.

  8. This is such a great review!

    I've been meaning to get this book for quite sometime now. Actually I almost bought it last Tuesday on sale except that I was too slow to pick it up and instead wandered over another aisle to search trade paperbacks and by the time I decided to shell out the money for this, someone else did! Apparently it was the last copy :(

    But I understand your sentiments on picking an excerpt or two. Ms. Smith does write lovingly. I have read and fell in love with both her previous two books.

  9. I've only read her novel White Teeth. I liked it, but I can't say I loved it. Maybe I'll give this one a try, according to your good review.

  10. JP: lol, I can definitely picture people sitting on leather sofas and talking a load of nonsense about this book. I was vaguely aware that there had been a lot of hype surrounding it, but I did my best to avoid it. Of course, sometimes the nonsense proves impossible to avoid. Anyway, I'm glad to have changed your mind. I really think this one's worth picking up.
    (PS: For some reason I have been unable to comment on your blog lately :( I post the comment and it seems to be accepted, but then it doesn't turn up on your blog, and if I try to post it again it says that "wordpress detected a duplicate comment". Does wordpress hate me? I hope it's just a temporary bug!)

    Debi: I know that considering the size of your TBR mountain it will probably take you a while to get to it, but I hope you enjoy it when you do!

    Lightheaded: Thank you :) I've had that happen to me before, and it's just so frustrating! I hope you find another copy soon.

    Bellezza: I hope you enjoy this one! I can't say how similar or different it is to White Teeth, but I couldn't resist mooching a copy of that one, so hopefully I'll find out soon.

  11. Thanks for a wonderful review, Nymeth. Every time I read a positive review of this book, I decide I must get myself a copy, but then when I'm in the store, reading the back cover, I hesitate. Your comment about the book being better than it sounds it home for me, and I think the next time, I will pick it up regardless.

  12. Literary Feline: I understand just how you feel. It's pretty much impossible to summarize the plot of this book in a way that does it justice. What makes it so charming are the details, the little unique ways in which this seemingly ordinary story is told. I really hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

  13. Hi Nymeth, I read this some time ago. I didn't write a review because I didn't know where to start. It's a great book and you wrote a great review. Thanks!

  14. Does anyone know how Zora percevies beauty in the book and also, what are some examples in her quotes throughout the book?

    very appreciative


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