Sally's Reviews > On Beauty

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
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Aug 07, 09

bookshelves: extreme-readers
Read in July, 2009

I think On Beauty is brilliant. I loved the extra layer of meaning that my reading of E.M. Forster's Howards End provided -- but I don't think it's necessary to do background reading to enjoy this novel. The characters are "messy," as Zadie Smith would say -- most of them make a lot of mistakes, but, for the most part, you love them, or sympathize with them for all of their deficiencies. It's a book with many layers, which is just the kind of fiction I love the most!

Zadie Smith has experience in many worlds, crosses many boundaries, and has interesting things to say from a variety of perspectives (including as both a fiction writer and as an academic). She's not only an extremely talented novelist, but she is super educated and smart, with interesting opinions on art, writing, and reading that can be appreciated by anyone. For example, her stance on the value of reading fiction in one sentence, which I really like: "When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good)." (Read "Love, Actually," published in the UK Guardian, Nov. 1, 2003, to understand the fullness of what that means.)

In On Beauty Smith tells an engaging story centered in a Harvard-like community, with lots of political, social, and academic battles that make you laugh and cringe at the same time. The dialogue is snappy and entertaining. We get the most concentrated view of Howard, a middle-aged, untenured professor (his stalled book-in-progress and unpopular art history lectures argue against Rembrandt's artistic genius), and his practical, down-to-earth, and wise wife and three young adult children. Howard gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, putting his 30-year marriage on the line for extramarital nonsense, as his career continues to go nowhere. There are lots of controversy-filled themes packed in this novel: race, immigration, class, gender -- along with love, family, friendship, coming-of-age, and aging. Everyone is trying to figure out their place in the world and with each other.

One of the many memorable scenes is when Howard makes an unplanned visit to his father during an emergency trip to London. It has been four years since their last failed visit, and they both can't help -- despite their best intentions -- but clash. Howard and his father speak different languages. It pains Howard to confront his father's ignorance just as his father is shocked by Howard's incomprehensible views of art and puzzled by his interracial marriage and family. Smith skillfully captures the chasm between father and son, painful memories, and the impossibility of successful communication and a meaningful relationship.

Readers of Howards End won't have any trouble recognizing the parallels - but Smith goes way beyond the framework provided by Forster, to make this a book that addresses contemporary personal and social contradictions in an entirely fresh, creative, and relevant manner. I highly recommend this outstanding novel!
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07/17/2009 page 122
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Steve Duong Fantastic review!~


Sally Steve wrote: "Fantastic review!~"

Thanks for your comment!


message 3: by Loretta (new)

Loretta Siegel I love your review, Sally. If it is like Howards End, I will love it. See you on Monday after my voyage to Holland and Belgium. Are we going as a group to the play "Ultima" at Chabot College?


Sally Loretta wrote: "I love your review, Sally. If it is like Howards End, I will love it. See you on Monday after my voyage to Holland and Belgium. Are we going as a group to the play "Ultima" at Chabot College?"

Thanks, Loretta. It's pretty different than Howards End, though there are interesting parallels. I now rank On Beauty as one of my favorite novels. I think it's really fantastic. Let me know what you think, if you read it. If I don't see you before you leave, have a great trip! I'll send out an email soon about arranging a group outing to Ultima.


Kate The scene with Howard's father made me cry. Poor, stupid man. :(


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