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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, 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.

Published: Penguin Group on
ISBN: 9781101218112
List price: $13.99
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I had a hard time getting into this book at first, mostly because of the elliptical way the characters talk to each other. Either the writer mellowed out, or I got used to her style, because the book began to work for me, and I ended up enjoying it very much. It’s the story of an art professor and his family in a New England university town. Theirs is an interracial marriage in a mostly all-white environment, and this is an underlying theme, treated with subtlety. The professor’s strict academic rejection of popular taste is another theme, and all the characters bounce off of it to some degree.

Some of the characters are not quite realized, but the professor and his wife, Kiki, are both very richly drawn. Kiki is especially beautiful and fascinating, and she’s a good foil for her rather fatuous husband, her rigidly ambitious daughter, and her two sons. Both sons are looking for some source of hope, one through religion and one through street politics. Kiki, meanwhile, is all about living fully in an environment that keeps buttoning everyone up.

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Oh Zadie Smith, write more! Write more! This book pulled me out of a reading slump. It takes a lot of skill to be intelligent, funny, and sad all at once, but Zadie pulls it off with aplomb.

I was sad to see this book end.more
i love hearing zadie smith talk; i think she's a brilliant thinker, and a classic reader. (not to mention a fantastic dresser.) i'd much rather she start publishing nonfiction, because her fiction is good with some great moments, but never truly great. her introduction to the 'best american nonrequired reading' anthology a few years back is a good example of what she can do when writing well about reading.

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She is one of the few writers who can actually make me interested in a typical 'literary' novel that's just about some random people's lives without any robots or opera singers or natural disasters or anything.
The characters in this novel are fascinatingly complex, and the themes of race and class in--wait, is that something shiny over there? Maybe it's a robot! Back later! Bye!more
(3.5 stars)

I don't often feel this way about books but I felt at an inherent disadvantage reading this as a white girl. The main ideas explored have so much to do with race and racial conflicts in particular. Set primarily in Boston, it concerns a marriage between a white professor and a black woman and their kids who struggle to fit into their world. For example, the younger of the two brothers who wants to talk "street" but is ashamed that he lives in an upper middle class area of Boston. The idea is to not be privileged and when he runs into some Haitians, he's even more convinced that he shouldn't be living in his current rich neighborhood. There are questions of beauty too, as the subject suggests both in terms of the wife and mother of the family and a work of Rembrandt's (I've always hated that artist, I have to admit, which made it much more difficult for me to enjoy the book in some sections.)


Besides delving into the politics of Haiti, the book also speaks about affirmative action with two angry professors. The one who opposes the other speaking out on affirmative action doesn't want to tread on democracy but he's torn to say the least. Both arguments-for and against affirmative action are stated and perhaps the most powerful is the one in which suggests that issues of class became more important to politicians like Condi than their race.


You also have alot of immorality from both sides-the Christian right wing and the completely liberal. Affairs abound and it seems poorly written at this point...too stereotypical and uncreative. Predictable. Really, the only person who is without artifice and could be described as beautiful is the professor's wife and the mother of the story who is a feminist to her core even if she's not an intellectual. Despite her weight, she's a rather proud woman who cherishes her children and is forgiving as possible about many things.


Without giving away too much, the book also doesn't really leave you with a definitive ending. Though it's clever the way she it finishes, I felt overall a little disappointed even though it vaguely reminds me of The Crying of Lot 49 in terms of that anticipation. But then again, as I said before I really couldn't care less about Rembrandt. Overall, I was more impressed wth The Autograph Man...still have to finish White Teeth.more
Starts strong, loses steam. Too long. Just like White Teeth. I think I'm done with Zadie Smith until she writes a novella.more
On Beauty is marvelous fiction. Though it may seem to be a novel about Big Ideas –– race, politics, love, &ct. –– its real appeal lies in Smith's consistent and extraordinary ability to perfectly yet novelly articulate life. More than anything else, it is this observational acuity that draws the reader in and propels the novel forward –– and compensates for its "flaws": its contrived plot, its neglect of certain characters, its lack of any strong message (not actually a bad thing). The book's major players are vile and/or pitiable, yet Smith's honest portrayals ensure that they are, first and foremost, human. And therein lies On Beauty's true strength: not as a scathing piece of social satire (it isn't), nor as a repository of contemporary commentary (which, if it is, it is only incidentally), but as a beautiful depiction of a small sliver of human life. Plus, it's damn entertaining.Make no mistakes: On Beauty is far from all you could want out of a novel. Yet it has so much, and so much of the most important and rarest things, and that's what makes it such an exquisite work.more
On Beauty is about two families on opposing sides of the culture war: The atheist, liberal Belseys on one side and the ultra-religious, ultra-conservative Kipps' on the other. It's also about race and racial identity: black versus white, academic life and intellectualism and the hypocrisy of those the "firm ideals". Though I found the book well written I found it difficult to like many of the main characters, particularly Howard and Zora. These two characters show the hypocrisy of their lives and beliefs and their lack of real emotional intelligence or empathy. The characters I was able to connect with were Kiki, Levi and Carlene--who show real growth and understanding of their lives. They were the real redemption of this novel. 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.more
Peter Francis James does an outstanding narration of On Beauty. The Belsey family is recovering from their father Howard's admission of a one-night stand. Kiki, the mother, is the emotional rock of the family, so her pain radiates to everyone. The young adult children (adult children is the weirdest phrase but I don't have a better one) have taken sides. Jerome, the oldest, sides with Kiki but needs distance before he can deal with his father. He spends a year in London and ends up living with the family of his father's academic rival and falling in love with their daughter. Zora, a sophomore at Wellington where her father is a professor, defends Howard at all costs. Levi, the youngest, tries to ignore the family drama as he pretends he's from the "hood." Complicating matters even more is the fact that Kiki is a stereotype of an overweight southern black woman, and Howard is a caricature of a white Englishman who never lost his accent and has no connection with/understanding of his "black" children. This rich, liberal, atheist family curses in their regular conversations, and the children call their parents by their first names. They discuss everything, but they don't go beyond the surface of anything important.Howard's academic rival is a Black British evangelical, and after Jerome's disastrous stay with them in London, the family moves to Massachusetts when Monty, the father, is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington. Drama on the college campus ensues.Although I enjoyed the audiobook, some parts were jarring. The characters did not grow or develop. Howard's self-centeredness, self-pity and refusal to handle his supposed loved ones with care was absolutely infuriating! At first I thought it was an unrealistic character portrayal, but then I realized that I know some people like that who just refuse to take responsibility for their actions and who feel victimized even when they are the ones causing pain for others. And there are certainly women who tolerate disrespect whether it's disguised with "objectivity" or thrown in their faces.I didn't understand why Jerome was a peripheral character because he had so much potential. Embracing Christianity despite his father's ridicule, being open and tolerant of other's ideas, supporting his mom during her emotional turmoil made him seem real, but Smith didn't do anything to flesh him out. Zora was a brat and entitled and I did not like her. I thought she should have matured some by the end of the book and I didn't see it. Poor Levi was just not believable. Any real thug could spot a faker like him a mile away, but he manages to be accepted as genuine wherever he goes.The ending was abrupt. I played the last CD twice because I thought I missed something. Why was the book called On Beauty? The poem by that title in the book seemed so arbitrary. Victoria had a great body and her ass was beautiful, according to everyone who saw her, and the painting that Kiki loved was of a beautiful woman, but I didn't see beauty as an overall theme of the book. Maybe I missed something.more
Looks ‘weighty’, but it’s not profound, nor very insightful. To me the characters and their motivations seem neither deep nor plausible – rather like the findings of the psychoanalyst (Dr Byford here) that the author cites with apparent conviction. But perhaps that’s the same in Smith’s homagee E.M. Forster; it’s so long since I read him, I can’t recall his work un-MerchantIvoried. Smith’s aim here is set out in the opening lines’ knowing reference to Howard’s End (a clever touch but there are few instances of pizzazz in the book after that). This reference is echoed in the name of one of the lead characters: 'Howard'. But I was struck as much by resemblances to another lead, the Howard Kirk of Bradbury's History Man: another smug and self-serving follower of liberal fairy tales, iconoclastic, although he with a bit more chutzpah. This mode of liberal delusion, more than class or race, is the most salient disconnect here. As for the ‘Beauty’ theme, I didn’t fully grasp what was intended: perhaps it explains in part the extended treatment of Rembrandt’s work in this book? Just as this reader was about to fling in the towel (p 263 or so), ‘On Beauty’ does get going with some interestingly charged connects – Zora/Howard, Kiki/Carlene (impulsiveness/propriety ), and then too the over-freighted little images of disconnects (Kiki left holding her departed friend’s hot chocolate). In the end, the book is tied up satisfactorily with a fair balance of resolution of connects and only/dis-connects. Overall, the effect is a bit wearying, but the writing is mature and confident. At times, the dialogue does become ‘writer-y’. And although some of the couplings seem unlikely, the sex itself is pretty plausible.more
"On Beauty" won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 -- therefore I had very high hopes for this read. However, my response to the novel was a mixed bag, so to say.I liked the idea of the plot -- two dueling professors whose long history of debates and differing views color their lives and family interactions. I loved the idea that one of the families was a conservative black family while the other family was a liberal mixed race family. All in all, from the descriptions I should have LOVED this book. Let me clarify -- I did not hate "On Beauty" but it was not a love affair :)I think where my lackluster response is rooted is in the characters here. The main character has very little growth and remains mostly unlikeable (in my humble opinion anyway). I loved the Keke character but I wanted her to have a different outcome. Some of the other characters were either totally irritating or dropped out of the story line too soon (I wanted more Jerome!).I would say that Smith's writing is beautiful in places. She described a setting in England and I could see it in my mind perfectly. I just couldn't love the novel when I disliked so much of her characterizations.more
Takes 400 pages to list a bunch of interesting sociological issues without exploring them in any meaningful way. Language is too flat and the ideas too shallow for this to be literature.more
What a terrible writer. Tone-deaf, doesn't know anything about the US academic system, Massachusetts geography or transit, health administrators' salaries, West Indians, teenage boys, teenage boys' diction, affirmative action, 21st century race politics, pacing of novels ...Yes, I have read Howard's End. It doesn't take a genius to copy the idea. What's important is the execution, for Pete's sake.more
An homage to E.M. Forster so cleverly done that even people who haven't read him would enjoy it. Her social commentary and observations are very well done, better than most others I have read. She covers many large issues such as race, immigration, class, education, art, marriage, infidelity, body size, gender, friendship, and the legacy parents can leave for their children without even realizing it. Her writing is both humourous and serious much like real life. She follows the lives of two families and their tenuous relationship over time.more
Started well but degenerated into a a book with too many characters I did not like (Jerome, who I did like, hardly featured after the start), and gratuitous sex scenes that did not appear to have much bearing on the story. I still do not know why Zadie Smith called it On Beauty. There seemed no more relevance to this than the average novel.I finished it, but reluctantlymore
drama of dirty secrets, limitations and treasures of both family and life in a closed circle of a university. funny at times, always reminding that to err is, indeed, in human nature.more
after a first 50 pages that were only reasonably good, i found myself unable to put the book down. it's simply, but well-written and was A LOT more fun than the sea (which shouldn't have won the booker in 2005). on the other hand 'on beauty' does have two passages that could very well have been nominated for the bad sex awards, and i felt, though everything leading up to it was incredible, the ending was a little too abrupt, i would and have recommend(ed) it to people i like ;)more
I'd rather give it four and a half stars. Smith had me really invested in the characters, I loved the university backdrop, and the prose was at times stunning. And I feel like it has actually taught me something of the beauty of marriage, and of the tragedy of betrayal. I don't know though, something just stopped me from love loving it. Maybe it just isn't the sort of book I give five stars. Sorry Zadie.more
I picked the audio copy of On Beauty on the suggestion of some wonderful Twitter buddies who answered my call for multi-cultural books with themes similar to Jonathon Franzen's Freedom (which I'll be starting in January). I've not read Zadie Smith before, which made this novel even more perfect to compare against Freedom. I'm a Franzen virgin as well. When I've finished them both, I'll be writing a more in depth comparison of them both. I will still be reviewing them separately. The comparison has more to do with my #readingfreude than it does the novels themselves.On Beauty, although primarily about the racially mixed Belsey family, is the tale of two black, educated, university families. The Belsey family is made up of white Englishman Howard, African American Kiki, and their three children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. The Kipps family is made up of Monty, Carlene, and their children, Michael and Victoria. While the Belseys are politically and culturally very liberal and irreligious, the Kipps family are politically, culturally and religiously conservative. Both Howard and Monty teach and write about art. Even in the world of art they are diametrically opposed. In fact, Howard sees Monty as his arch nemesis. Despite every one's intentions, it proved impossible to keep the families apart, even when they were separated by the Atlantic.This is a difficult novel to pin down in just a few paragraphs. It's dense and cerebral. I've spent months trying to write this review in my head and I've not been very successful. Instead of covering everything, I've decided to focus on the role of the wife in this novel. While outsiders might think Kiki's lot in life was more free and appealing, she was locked down just as much as Carlene appeared to be in Monty's home. The truth is that the women had more in common than anyone would have suspected. Carlene may outwardly hold up Monty's ideals, her mind is her own. She doesn't keep herself tied to an ideology at all costs. In the same way, Kiki finds that life is never as simple as black and white. The adult lives her son Jerome and daughter Zora start living mirrors how complex her own life has become. While the men in their lives fail to appreciate how their lives and view points can compliment each other, their wives are drawn to each other. They alone know how much their husbands are really alike.Of all the characters, I related to and loved Kike the most. Kiki roared "I am woman!" in all her glory. She believed in herself and her culture when she was young and when she is middle aged, when she was fine and when she was fat. She grew more than any character in the book, finding that change does not equate to losing your essence. Her son, Levi, while less confident in who he was, was most like her. They both never tried to forget the importance of living in the here and now.Since the demise of Guiding Light in September of 2009, it's not very often any longer that I can say, ''He/She is/was on my show!" On Beauty gave me such an opportunity. It's narrator, Peter Francis James, took a turn on Guiding Light. I recognized his voice before I did his picture. I found him to be a good narrator. I think he captured the attitude and tone of Howard and Monty especially well.Final ThoughtsOn Beauty was probably the most tiring book I read in 2011. It took a great deal of thought and concentration. It's one of those books I'm glad to have read but can't say that I enjoyed the process. I had to fight the urge to give it up because it was so stuffy. That stuffiness is essential to the story. Good Lord, it was so stifling there that things were bound to explode. The explosion was more internal and introspective than spectacular. It also required a good deal more of me as a reader. I'll be interested in seeing how it compares to Freedom.more
A so, so interesting read.The story revolves around two families that live in Mass. The reader will find the Belseys family with the main character Howard Belsey an Art professor and from the second family; the Kipps there is Monty Kipps. Monty arrives with his family and begins his work at the same university that Howard is employed. In summary these two characters lock horns on various social issues (family life, marriage, faithfulness, etc.) and their strong views are covered in this story that spans over a one year period.I suspect that so far this sounds boring, but the author did weave this subplot (I say subplot because there seemed to be numerous plots where I'm in the middle or I'm just starting another one) into the story to make it very interesting. I use the word "interesting" loosely because I found it difficult to find a lot of empathy for the host of characters, although Zora with her sexual problems did stand out in my memory.The ending was a let down for me. It left me sort of confused, as if there were more pages to the story that needed to be read. Maybe that was intentional by the author. Overall I'm not sure if I would recommend "On Beauty" to my friends. I guess I would have to be very selective if I did opt to encourage someone to buy the book. Maybe, my best bet would be to advise them to check it out at the library.more
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.more
Set in a US ivy league university town it is the story of two families who both have professors for fathers who have long been rivals. The book follows the lives of the children and wives and how their lives intertwine and covers class and race issues. An enjoyable read but not really mu cup of tea but I couldn't put my finger on why.more
recommended by mariannette, captivating writing, interesting story. Liked it a lot.more
I liked this book. I normally have trouble finishing books that are this long, but I just flew right through this one. The story was entertaining and the characters were funny in a pitiful kind of way. Much better than White Teeth. I know most people probably won't agree with me about that.more
I accidentally took a year-long break about half-way through Zadie Smith's sophomore effort--partly because I got distracted by a season of bookish overabundance, and partly because I initially found its "middle-upper class family drama" plot too pedestrian. Then I picked up Updike's "Rabbit" series again, and remembered just how riveting it can be to watch a "typical" suburban family slowly disintegrate. And riveting it is! Smith is doubtless one of our best living novelists, and it was rare that I found fault with a single sentence of "On Beauty."Between this and her debut, "White Teeth," Smith seems to've established some thematic ruts (i.e. race, class, immigration/assimilation), but fortunately these are topics that will take basically forever to exhaust. Which, as it happens, is about as long as I plan to remain a devout consumer of her prose.more
I very much wanted to like this book. I liked White Teeth. I like Zadie Smith’s newspaper articles, and I like her when she’s on chat shows. My friends all liked this book. I’m the same age as the main female character, my children are the same ages as hers, I live in North London, I went to a fancy college near Boston and I know a lot of academics, so I’m familiar with a lot of what she writes about. But I just didn’t like it as much as I had hoped. Maybe my expectations were too high.The main couple, Kiki and Howard, were reasonably realistic, and the story of their long marriage, with its ups and downs, highs and lows, felt real and was described quite movingly. But all the other characters just seemed one-dimensional stereotypes – the repressed religious college student, the sexually predatory co-ed, the stiff upper lip English woman, the larger than life visiting professor, the secret poetic genius living on the street, etc., etc. I couldn’t identify with any of them, their stories often seemed implausible, and I just didn’t care what happened to them. A lot is made of Smith’s good ear for dialogue, and I did find that the characters sounded natural, it’s just that what they said wasn’t natural.I have read that this book is related to Howard’s End. I haven’t read that, so maybe I would have enjoyed this more if I had. I actually found it reminded me more of the “campus comedy” novels of people like David Lodge, which are amusing but slight. I expected more.All in all, something of a disappointment. But I certainly haven’t given up on Zadie Smith – her next book will probably be fantastic.more
A rollicking satire of the sacred pieties laid bare when a university confronts thorny issues of race, class and privilege. Howard Belsey , his wife Kiki have a mixed marriage. Howard teaches at the local university, Wellington, is British, and therein lies the tale.more
I read this book after finishing an essay by Zadie Smith in which she says this novel is a retelling of Howard's End. The connection with Howard's End is certainly there, but the characters in this novel didn't ring as true to me.more
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Reviews

I had a hard time getting into this book at first, mostly because of the elliptical way the characters talk to each other. Either the writer mellowed out, or I got used to her style, because the book began to work for me, and I ended up enjoying it very much. It’s the story of an art professor and his family in a New England university town. Theirs is an interracial marriage in a mostly all-white environment, and this is an underlying theme, treated with subtlety. The professor’s strict academic rejection of popular taste is another theme, and all the characters bounce off of it to some degree.

Some of the characters are not quite realized, but the professor and his wife, Kiki, are both very richly drawn. Kiki is especially beautiful and fascinating, and she’s a good foil for her rather fatuous husband, her rigidly ambitious daughter, and her two sons. Both sons are looking for some source of hope, one through religion and one through street politics. Kiki, meanwhile, is all about living fully in an environment that keeps buttoning everyone up.

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Oh Zadie Smith, write more! Write more! This book pulled me out of a reading slump. It takes a lot of skill to be intelligent, funny, and sad all at once, but Zadie pulls it off with aplomb.

I was sad to see this book end.more
i love hearing zadie smith talk; i think she's a brilliant thinker, and a classic reader. (not to mention a fantastic dresser.) i'd much rather she start publishing nonfiction, because her fiction is good with some great moments, but never truly great. her introduction to the 'best american nonrequired reading' anthology a few years back is a good example of what she can do when writing well about reading.

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She is one of the few writers who can actually make me interested in a typical 'literary' novel that's just about some random people's lives without any robots or opera singers or natural disasters or anything.
The characters in this novel are fascinatingly complex, and the themes of race and class in--wait, is that something shiny over there? Maybe it's a robot! Back later! Bye!more
(3.5 stars)

I don't often feel this way about books but I felt at an inherent disadvantage reading this as a white girl. The main ideas explored have so much to do with race and racial conflicts in particular. Set primarily in Boston, it concerns a marriage between a white professor and a black woman and their kids who struggle to fit into their world. For example, the younger of the two brothers who wants to talk "street" but is ashamed that he lives in an upper middle class area of Boston. The idea is to not be privileged and when he runs into some Haitians, he's even more convinced that he shouldn't be living in his current rich neighborhood. There are questions of beauty too, as the subject suggests both in terms of the wife and mother of the family and a work of Rembrandt's (I've always hated that artist, I have to admit, which made it much more difficult for me to enjoy the book in some sections.)


Besides delving into the politics of Haiti, the book also speaks about affirmative action with two angry professors. The one who opposes the other speaking out on affirmative action doesn't want to tread on democracy but he's torn to say the least. Both arguments-for and against affirmative action are stated and perhaps the most powerful is the one in which suggests that issues of class became more important to politicians like Condi than their race.


You also have alot of immorality from both sides-the Christian right wing and the completely liberal. Affairs abound and it seems poorly written at this point...too stereotypical and uncreative. Predictable. Really, the only person who is without artifice and could be described as beautiful is the professor's wife and the mother of the story who is a feminist to her core even if she's not an intellectual. Despite her weight, she's a rather proud woman who cherishes her children and is forgiving as possible about many things.


Without giving away too much, the book also doesn't really leave you with a definitive ending. Though it's clever the way she it finishes, I felt overall a little disappointed even though it vaguely reminds me of The Crying of Lot 49 in terms of that anticipation. But then again, as I said before I really couldn't care less about Rembrandt. Overall, I was more impressed wth The Autograph Man...still have to finish White Teeth.more
Starts strong, loses steam. Too long. Just like White Teeth. I think I'm done with Zadie Smith until she writes a novella.more
On Beauty is marvelous fiction. Though it may seem to be a novel about Big Ideas –– race, politics, love, &ct. –– its real appeal lies in Smith's consistent and extraordinary ability to perfectly yet novelly articulate life. More than anything else, it is this observational acuity that draws the reader in and propels the novel forward –– and compensates for its "flaws": its contrived plot, its neglect of certain characters, its lack of any strong message (not actually a bad thing). The book's major players are vile and/or pitiable, yet Smith's honest portrayals ensure that they are, first and foremost, human. And therein lies On Beauty's true strength: not as a scathing piece of social satire (it isn't), nor as a repository of contemporary commentary (which, if it is, it is only incidentally), but as a beautiful depiction of a small sliver of human life. Plus, it's damn entertaining.Make no mistakes: On Beauty is far from all you could want out of a novel. Yet it has so much, and so much of the most important and rarest things, and that's what makes it such an exquisite work.more
On Beauty is about two families on opposing sides of the culture war: The atheist, liberal Belseys on one side and the ultra-religious, ultra-conservative Kipps' on the other. It's also about race and racial identity: black versus white, academic life and intellectualism and the hypocrisy of those the "firm ideals". Though I found the book well written I found it difficult to like many of the main characters, particularly Howard and Zora. These two characters show the hypocrisy of their lives and beliefs and their lack of real emotional intelligence or empathy. The characters I was able to connect with were Kiki, Levi and Carlene--who show real growth and understanding of their lives. They were the real redemption of this novel. 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.more
Peter Francis James does an outstanding narration of On Beauty. The Belsey family is recovering from their father Howard's admission of a one-night stand. Kiki, the mother, is the emotional rock of the family, so her pain radiates to everyone. The young adult children (adult children is the weirdest phrase but I don't have a better one) have taken sides. Jerome, the oldest, sides with Kiki but needs distance before he can deal with his father. He spends a year in London and ends up living with the family of his father's academic rival and falling in love with their daughter. Zora, a sophomore at Wellington where her father is a professor, defends Howard at all costs. Levi, the youngest, tries to ignore the family drama as he pretends he's from the "hood." Complicating matters even more is the fact that Kiki is a stereotype of an overweight southern black woman, and Howard is a caricature of a white Englishman who never lost his accent and has no connection with/understanding of his "black" children. This rich, liberal, atheist family curses in their regular conversations, and the children call their parents by their first names. They discuss everything, but they don't go beyond the surface of anything important.Howard's academic rival is a Black British evangelical, and after Jerome's disastrous stay with them in London, the family moves to Massachusetts when Monty, the father, is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington. Drama on the college campus ensues.Although I enjoyed the audiobook, some parts were jarring. The characters did not grow or develop. Howard's self-centeredness, self-pity and refusal to handle his supposed loved ones with care was absolutely infuriating! At first I thought it was an unrealistic character portrayal, but then I realized that I know some people like that who just refuse to take responsibility for their actions and who feel victimized even when they are the ones causing pain for others. And there are certainly women who tolerate disrespect whether it's disguised with "objectivity" or thrown in their faces.I didn't understand why Jerome was a peripheral character because he had so much potential. Embracing Christianity despite his father's ridicule, being open and tolerant of other's ideas, supporting his mom during her emotional turmoil made him seem real, but Smith didn't do anything to flesh him out. Zora was a brat and entitled and I did not like her. I thought she should have matured some by the end of the book and I didn't see it. Poor Levi was just not believable. Any real thug could spot a faker like him a mile away, but he manages to be accepted as genuine wherever he goes.The ending was abrupt. I played the last CD twice because I thought I missed something. Why was the book called On Beauty? The poem by that title in the book seemed so arbitrary. Victoria had a great body and her ass was beautiful, according to everyone who saw her, and the painting that Kiki loved was of a beautiful woman, but I didn't see beauty as an overall theme of the book. Maybe I missed something.more
Looks ‘weighty’, but it’s not profound, nor very insightful. To me the characters and their motivations seem neither deep nor plausible – rather like the findings of the psychoanalyst (Dr Byford here) that the author cites with apparent conviction. But perhaps that’s the same in Smith’s homagee E.M. Forster; it’s so long since I read him, I can’t recall his work un-MerchantIvoried. Smith’s aim here is set out in the opening lines’ knowing reference to Howard’s End (a clever touch but there are few instances of pizzazz in the book after that). This reference is echoed in the name of one of the lead characters: 'Howard'. But I was struck as much by resemblances to another lead, the Howard Kirk of Bradbury's History Man: another smug and self-serving follower of liberal fairy tales, iconoclastic, although he with a bit more chutzpah. This mode of liberal delusion, more than class or race, is the most salient disconnect here. As for the ‘Beauty’ theme, I didn’t fully grasp what was intended: perhaps it explains in part the extended treatment of Rembrandt’s work in this book? Just as this reader was about to fling in the towel (p 263 or so), ‘On Beauty’ does get going with some interestingly charged connects – Zora/Howard, Kiki/Carlene (impulsiveness/propriety ), and then too the over-freighted little images of disconnects (Kiki left holding her departed friend’s hot chocolate). In the end, the book is tied up satisfactorily with a fair balance of resolution of connects and only/dis-connects. Overall, the effect is a bit wearying, but the writing is mature and confident. At times, the dialogue does become ‘writer-y’. And although some of the couplings seem unlikely, the sex itself is pretty plausible.more
"On Beauty" won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 -- therefore I had very high hopes for this read. However, my response to the novel was a mixed bag, so to say.I liked the idea of the plot -- two dueling professors whose long history of debates and differing views color their lives and family interactions. I loved the idea that one of the families was a conservative black family while the other family was a liberal mixed race family. All in all, from the descriptions I should have LOVED this book. Let me clarify -- I did not hate "On Beauty" but it was not a love affair :)I think where my lackluster response is rooted is in the characters here. The main character has very little growth and remains mostly unlikeable (in my humble opinion anyway). I loved the Keke character but I wanted her to have a different outcome. Some of the other characters were either totally irritating or dropped out of the story line too soon (I wanted more Jerome!).I would say that Smith's writing is beautiful in places. She described a setting in England and I could see it in my mind perfectly. I just couldn't love the novel when I disliked so much of her characterizations.more
Takes 400 pages to list a bunch of interesting sociological issues without exploring them in any meaningful way. Language is too flat and the ideas too shallow for this to be literature.more
What a terrible writer. Tone-deaf, doesn't know anything about the US academic system, Massachusetts geography or transit, health administrators' salaries, West Indians, teenage boys, teenage boys' diction, affirmative action, 21st century race politics, pacing of novels ...Yes, I have read Howard's End. It doesn't take a genius to copy the idea. What's important is the execution, for Pete's sake.more
An homage to E.M. Forster so cleverly done that even people who haven't read him would enjoy it. Her social commentary and observations are very well done, better than most others I have read. She covers many large issues such as race, immigration, class, education, art, marriage, infidelity, body size, gender, friendship, and the legacy parents can leave for their children without even realizing it. Her writing is both humourous and serious much like real life. She follows the lives of two families and their tenuous relationship over time.more
Started well but degenerated into a a book with too many characters I did not like (Jerome, who I did like, hardly featured after the start), and gratuitous sex scenes that did not appear to have much bearing on the story. I still do not know why Zadie Smith called it On Beauty. There seemed no more relevance to this than the average novel.I finished it, but reluctantlymore
drama of dirty secrets, limitations and treasures of both family and life in a closed circle of a university. funny at times, always reminding that to err is, indeed, in human nature.more
after a first 50 pages that were only reasonably good, i found myself unable to put the book down. it's simply, but well-written and was A LOT more fun than the sea (which shouldn't have won the booker in 2005). on the other hand 'on beauty' does have two passages that could very well have been nominated for the bad sex awards, and i felt, though everything leading up to it was incredible, the ending was a little too abrupt, i would and have recommend(ed) it to people i like ;)more
I'd rather give it four and a half stars. Smith had me really invested in the characters, I loved the university backdrop, and the prose was at times stunning. And I feel like it has actually taught me something of the beauty of marriage, and of the tragedy of betrayal. I don't know though, something just stopped me from love loving it. Maybe it just isn't the sort of book I give five stars. Sorry Zadie.more
I picked the audio copy of On Beauty on the suggestion of some wonderful Twitter buddies who answered my call for multi-cultural books with themes similar to Jonathon Franzen's Freedom (which I'll be starting in January). I've not read Zadie Smith before, which made this novel even more perfect to compare against Freedom. I'm a Franzen virgin as well. When I've finished them both, I'll be writing a more in depth comparison of them both. I will still be reviewing them separately. The comparison has more to do with my #readingfreude than it does the novels themselves.On Beauty, although primarily about the racially mixed Belsey family, is the tale of two black, educated, university families. The Belsey family is made up of white Englishman Howard, African American Kiki, and their three children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. The Kipps family is made up of Monty, Carlene, and their children, Michael and Victoria. While the Belseys are politically and culturally very liberal and irreligious, the Kipps family are politically, culturally and religiously conservative. Both Howard and Monty teach and write about art. Even in the world of art they are diametrically opposed. In fact, Howard sees Monty as his arch nemesis. Despite every one's intentions, it proved impossible to keep the families apart, even when they were separated by the Atlantic.This is a difficult novel to pin down in just a few paragraphs. It's dense and cerebral. I've spent months trying to write this review in my head and I've not been very successful. Instead of covering everything, I've decided to focus on the role of the wife in this novel. While outsiders might think Kiki's lot in life was more free and appealing, she was locked down just as much as Carlene appeared to be in Monty's home. The truth is that the women had more in common than anyone would have suspected. Carlene may outwardly hold up Monty's ideals, her mind is her own. She doesn't keep herself tied to an ideology at all costs. In the same way, Kiki finds that life is never as simple as black and white. The adult lives her son Jerome and daughter Zora start living mirrors how complex her own life has become. While the men in their lives fail to appreciate how their lives and view points can compliment each other, their wives are drawn to each other. They alone know how much their husbands are really alike.Of all the characters, I related to and loved Kike the most. Kiki roared "I am woman!" in all her glory. She believed in herself and her culture when she was young and when she is middle aged, when she was fine and when she was fat. She grew more than any character in the book, finding that change does not equate to losing your essence. Her son, Levi, while less confident in who he was, was most like her. They both never tried to forget the importance of living in the here and now.Since the demise of Guiding Light in September of 2009, it's not very often any longer that I can say, ''He/She is/was on my show!" On Beauty gave me such an opportunity. It's narrator, Peter Francis James, took a turn on Guiding Light. I recognized his voice before I did his picture. I found him to be a good narrator. I think he captured the attitude and tone of Howard and Monty especially well.Final ThoughtsOn Beauty was probably the most tiring book I read in 2011. It took a great deal of thought and concentration. It's one of those books I'm glad to have read but can't say that I enjoyed the process. I had to fight the urge to give it up because it was so stuffy. That stuffiness is essential to the story. Good Lord, it was so stifling there that things were bound to explode. The explosion was more internal and introspective than spectacular. It also required a good deal more of me as a reader. I'll be interested in seeing how it compares to Freedom.more
A so, so interesting read.The story revolves around two families that live in Mass. The reader will find the Belseys family with the main character Howard Belsey an Art professor and from the second family; the Kipps there is Monty Kipps. Monty arrives with his family and begins his work at the same university that Howard is employed. In summary these two characters lock horns on various social issues (family life, marriage, faithfulness, etc.) and their strong views are covered in this story that spans over a one year period.I suspect that so far this sounds boring, but the author did weave this subplot (I say subplot because there seemed to be numerous plots where I'm in the middle or I'm just starting another one) into the story to make it very interesting. I use the word "interesting" loosely because I found it difficult to find a lot of empathy for the host of characters, although Zora with her sexual problems did stand out in my memory.The ending was a let down for me. It left me sort of confused, as if there were more pages to the story that needed to be read. Maybe that was intentional by the author. Overall I'm not sure if I would recommend "On Beauty" to my friends. I guess I would have to be very selective if I did opt to encourage someone to buy the book. Maybe, my best bet would be to advise them to check it out at the library.more
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.more
Set in a US ivy league university town it is the story of two families who both have professors for fathers who have long been rivals. The book follows the lives of the children and wives and how their lives intertwine and covers class and race issues. An enjoyable read but not really mu cup of tea but I couldn't put my finger on why.more
recommended by mariannette, captivating writing, interesting story. Liked it a lot.more
I liked this book. I normally have trouble finishing books that are this long, but I just flew right through this one. The story was entertaining and the characters were funny in a pitiful kind of way. Much better than White Teeth. I know most people probably won't agree with me about that.more
I accidentally took a year-long break about half-way through Zadie Smith's sophomore effort--partly because I got distracted by a season of bookish overabundance, and partly because I initially found its "middle-upper class family drama" plot too pedestrian. Then I picked up Updike's "Rabbit" series again, and remembered just how riveting it can be to watch a "typical" suburban family slowly disintegrate. And riveting it is! Smith is doubtless one of our best living novelists, and it was rare that I found fault with a single sentence of "On Beauty."Between this and her debut, "White Teeth," Smith seems to've established some thematic ruts (i.e. race, class, immigration/assimilation), but fortunately these are topics that will take basically forever to exhaust. Which, as it happens, is about as long as I plan to remain a devout consumer of her prose.more
I very much wanted to like this book. I liked White Teeth. I like Zadie Smith’s newspaper articles, and I like her when she’s on chat shows. My friends all liked this book. I’m the same age as the main female character, my children are the same ages as hers, I live in North London, I went to a fancy college near Boston and I know a lot of academics, so I’m familiar with a lot of what she writes about. But I just didn’t like it as much as I had hoped. Maybe my expectations were too high.The main couple, Kiki and Howard, were reasonably realistic, and the story of their long marriage, with its ups and downs, highs and lows, felt real and was described quite movingly. But all the other characters just seemed one-dimensional stereotypes – the repressed religious college student, the sexually predatory co-ed, the stiff upper lip English woman, the larger than life visiting professor, the secret poetic genius living on the street, etc., etc. I couldn’t identify with any of them, their stories often seemed implausible, and I just didn’t care what happened to them. A lot is made of Smith’s good ear for dialogue, and I did find that the characters sounded natural, it’s just that what they said wasn’t natural.I have read that this book is related to Howard’s End. I haven’t read that, so maybe I would have enjoyed this more if I had. I actually found it reminded me more of the “campus comedy” novels of people like David Lodge, which are amusing but slight. I expected more.All in all, something of a disappointment. But I certainly haven’t given up on Zadie Smith – her next book will probably be fantastic.more
A rollicking satire of the sacred pieties laid bare when a university confronts thorny issues of race, class and privilege. Howard Belsey , his wife Kiki have a mixed marriage. Howard teaches at the local university, Wellington, is British, and therein lies the tale.more
I read this book after finishing an essay by Zadie Smith in which she says this novel is a retelling of Howard's End. The connection with Howard's End is certainly there, but the characters in this novel didn't ring as true to me.more
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