On Beauty

On Beauty

Book - 2006
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Dec 14, 2016

I'm disappointed, and this took me much too long to get through. I will give her another try with a different work.

manoush Dec 10, 2014

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.

Sep 02, 2014

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?

Jan 24, 2014

A great novel, with great characters.

Sep 18, 2013


Sep 04, 2013

** stars I really wanted to like this book because I had heard such praise for Ms. Smith. She is an excellent writer, but this book failed me because I did not care about or else actively despised the main characters. Howard Belsey is an Englishman teaching in Wellington, a college town in New England. After 30 years of marriage he is struggling to revive his love for his African American wife Kiki ( my favorite character, but she appears far too infrequently and definitely should kick his ass to the side ) ( the book does have one of the finest descriptions of mature sex that I have ever read) . Meanwhile, his three teenage children Jerome, Zora and Levi are struggling with their own lives. After Howard has a disastrous affair with a colleague, his sensitive older son, Jerome, escapes to England for the holidays. In London he defies everything the Belseys represent when he goes to work for Trinidadian right-wing academic, Monty Kipps. Taken in by the Kipps family for the summer, Jerome falls for Monty's beautiful daughter, Victoria. But this short-lived romance has long-lasting consequences, drawing these very different families into each other's lives. As Kiki develops a friendship with Mrs. Kipps, and Howard and Monty do battle on different sides of the culture war, hot-headed Zora brings a handsome young man from the Boston streets into their midst whom she is determined to draw into the fold of the black middle class. Part of my problem with the book is that I have lost all patience with men and women who allow lust and selfishness to be justifications for despicable behavior - in one case the sexual abuse of a young student by a professor. I disliked both the adult and the child-woman, but this sexual scene seemed unnecessary for the story line and led me to wonder about the author's inclusion of it, especially because his behavior had no consequences for the professor. Does this young woman author find such an encounter titillating or despicable? I could not identify with the teenagers. I did empathize with the street kid who had talent, but was used by Zora and ended up a child at the candy store window. The two professors are egomaniacs who allow themselves to cause harm with impunity. Kiki stands out in the chaos around her with great integrity, but she is not enough to allow me to like the book. Sorry to say, I cannot recommend.

Apr 17, 2013

I guess I just didn't get it.

jennywile Nov 09, 2012

Really amazing great book

natasha007 Jun 08, 2012

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

Mar 16, 2012

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.

Mar 05, 2012

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.

Jun 21, 2011

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!

hermlou Jan 12, 2011

Hard to get into, and I didn't finish it. The rave reviews made me feel that I should continue, for it was supposed to be hilarious. However, the tense relationship of family members and language of the teens sounded too much like home to be funny.

May 05, 2010

A hard book to "get into", but worth the effort.

Apr 25, 2010

Very, very good book to listen to.. I think I like "White Teeth", Smith's first novel, even more.

I would love to discuss it with someone who has read it.

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