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On Beauty

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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.

445 pages, Paperback

First published June 4, 2005

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About the author

Zadie Smith

113 books13.1k followers
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, as well as two collections of essays, Changing My Mind and Feel Free. Zadie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Visit www.zadiesmith.com for more information.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,491 reviews
Profile Image for Kinga.
476 reviews2,158 followers
April 1, 2020
Before we talk about Zadie Smith, let’s talk about me first. Here is something you should know – I was a serious book-worm up until I turned 16 (more or less) at which point I lost all interest in anything that wasn’t parties, boys, alcohol, drugs or sex. There, I said it. For the next five years my brain didn’t see much action (I somehow managed to finish high school and got accepted into the University of Warsaw but generally I found education a big distraction to my social life). I was about 21 when finally the fog surrounding my brain cleared a little and I decided to go to my local library. I had no idea what to read or how to choose. I was just browsing idly when I saw a book called ‘White Teeth’ with an interesting cover. I checked it out, went home and started reading. Soon I was mesmerized. I had no idea there were books like that, that there were stories like that and that people were telling them. I can’t quite recall now what it was about ‘White Teeth’ that spoke to me so but it was as if a curse was lifted and I could read and use my brain again.

For this OCD reason or another, a decade had to pass before I read another Zadie Smith’s book. I am more cynical now and not so easily impressed as I was back then. I felt l could see what Smith was doing there; I was onto all her tricks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book tremendously. All this mixing of race, politics, academia, art, love and death – what’s not to love? Even if some of the observations were not particularly revelatory to me I have to give it to Zadie – she knows how to write people. That’s what the characters in ‘On Beauty’ were – people, rather than characters. They were so well put together I feel I would recognize them if I chanced upon them at a party (you know, I still go to parties). Zadie Smith is at the same cruel and merciful towards her subjects. She won’t hesitate to point out all the silliness of their lives but allows us to feel compassion for them and look upon their futile attempts to practice what they preach with forgiveness.

Also the climax was quite astonishing. I begin to believe that the ability to write a good climax, to make the reader understand you knew exactly what you were doing from page one is exactly what separates great writers from everybody else.

But we shouldn’t forget humour either:

‘[…] A brother don’t need a gate – he jumps the fence. That’s street.’
‘Again, please?’ said Howard.
‘Street, street,’ bellowed Zora. It’s like, “being street”, knowing the street – in Levi’s sad little world if you’re a Negro you have some kind of mysterious holy communion with sidewalks and corners.’

And descriptions. Here is my personal favourite (for obvious reasons):

The African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her trucksuit, the unmistakeable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig fair in Kerry…

Bone structure! You can thank us for that later.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,287 reviews729 followers
December 17, 2015
When I say I am not a people person, I mean I can find five reasons to hate someone, anyone, within ten minutes of meeting them in real life. As consequence of this and the desire to not let overwhelming anger ruin my life, I am always putting myself in the other's place, years of which have both calmed me down and sharpened my analysis to the quick. However much I initially dislike you, I will always, always, always respect you, and if you're not a complete and utter asshole and/or hypocrite who never seriously considers what others have to say, I will reconcile myself with you in short order. The same goes for personas in books, which is why the whole concept of "likable" characters makes me laugh. If I factored that into my evaluation of literature, I'd be left with very few successes.

Despite what many of these reviews complain about, most of these characters are not assholes. Hypocrites, yes, but with a realness with which neither they nor the author may be condemned for. One of them is indeed a very typical asshole, but in such a fully explicated way that he is wielded as a veritable scythe through the ivory tower insipidity that is academia. This straight white male is a professor, a critic, a derider of custom and slayer of sentiment, so liberal in politics and so solipsistic in existence, able to get by in a world that encourages education without empathy at every turn in order to churn out glorified hipsters in the highest echelons of college campuses all across the US. In his eyes, nothing is sacred except for his dick, far more emblematic of a flawed society spewing out the same shit different days than any fault of the author, and which would hardly prove for a uniquely inspiring narrative had Smith not populated his world with characters that called him out on it at every turn. This includes the much objectified woman of his desires, who despite never having a share of that third person point of view is nothing less than fully and heartbreakingly human. Now that takes true writerly talent.

Now, I loved Howards End, I did. However, the ending was too clean, too circumspect, too full of its own glorious aspirations to really ponder the implications of demographics on personal relations, and ultimately in great need of satirization. Teaching that book to students today will give you exuberant know nothings with nary a thought as to the twisting of privilege in the smallest facet of daily life, a truth fended off every second of every hour with empty courtesy, gentrified fortresses, and the avoidance of certain subjects. Politics, religion, pay check. Beware of the other side of the fence, less you find out how much and how so you use and are used. There's no success there, neither your money nor your life.

Liberalism tries. As Smith displays in full, liberalism tries, but is easily co-opted without complete understanding, or even the willingness to understand, for it is one thing to condemn racism and sexism and everything else and quite another to view one's life through the paradigm forever on. It is tiring, it is hard, and quite frankly who has time for all that when there's a 40+ hour work week and kids and taxes and pull up your bootstraps 'cause no one's ready or willing to coddle you no matter how much your nature and nurture screwed you over long before you were born. Never mind your beautiful passion for what society considers wrong for all the wrong reasons. Never mind the judgment based on white heternormative masculinity, women deepening their voice in speaking classes, black men fending off the fearful stares with constant reassurance, both expending energy that could have been wonderfully devoted elsewhere if not for their body and soul.

In the end, hate people if you will. Hate them, but always grant them reason to live. Always grant them reason to exist in your eyes, regardless of what promotions they have the power to make possible, what length of your time they are worth based on the connections you hypothesize out of the tone of their voice and color of their skin, how much you can squeeze out of them before going back to that circle habituated to whatever power you have as a youth/mother/daughter/father/son you call family. You have the right to living your life without actively seeking out danger, but do not avoid a chance to communicate out of guilt, or shame, or entitlement. You were compromised coming into this world by both privilege and oppression; you will gain nothing by splintering off in your own little bell jar of social justice.
If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

-Zora Neale Hurston
Humans are social creatures. There is, despite the hypocritical politickings, something beautiful worth living for in the halls of thought. Rome wasn't built in a day. In other words, go listen to some rap, or whatever other medium you have closed yourself off from without ever really knowing why or considering what drives your fellow human beings who so rapturously partake of it. Talk is cheap, silence is death, and we might as well like or dislike the tomato while explaining why; something may come of it yet.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,109 reviews44.3k followers
November 21, 2018
The truth in this quote sends shivers down my spine. It's so real, like all of Smith's writing:

“Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful...and decide what you want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.”

The novel concerns itself with identity in the modern space. Who am I? And who are you? Are questions that the characters find themselves plagued with. But identity is not simple in a globalised world. To be British (or American) is a far reaching term.

Smith’s characters find themselves with a dilemma. Who are they supposed to be? Do they cling to their cultural norms or do they simple exist freely and become whatever it is they wish to be? Some fall into stereotypes and preformative behaviour. Others shift around not quite knowing who they are and what race they belong to. And the true success of Smith’s writing here resides in representation: she aims to represent everybody and anybody. With her evocation of multiculturalism, she captures the heart of the modern world.

Much of the plot occurs in the realms of academia, at a stuffy university obsessed with high grades and elitism. Even the title of the novel shows Smith preoccupations with words and ideas. And a huge part of this demonstrates how academics can often be detached from the truth (and pleasure) associated with art because of their outlandish and over the top theories that only serve the advancement of their own intellectual quests rather than appreciating the art for what it is. And it’s a very valid point.

So this is such a fantastically clever piece of writing that’s fiercely original; yet, at the same time, plays homage to its literary forefather: Howards End by E.M Forster. Here’s what Smith says in the acknowledgement section of my copy:

“It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other.”

On a basic level, she’s copied the plot and narrative progression of Forster’s novel, but she has transported it to the modern world. Instead of early twentieth century arguments over class and money, the characters worry over race and identity. As strange as it may sound, despite the clear similarities, the novel is not remotely derivative or over reliant on Forster. Smith has used his words as a platform to tell her story a hundred years later with modern characters and modern issues. And it’s, quite easily, one of the best literary adaptations I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

And I can’t quite believe it’s been almost two years since I last read a Zadie Smith novel, I’d almost forgotten how brilliant she is! Next on my list is her debut White Teeth. I hope I enjoy it as much as this one.
Profile Image for Guille.
741 reviews1,446 followers
May 29, 2021
Llama la atención el tono desenfadado de la novela, el aire de comedia que tienen las grandes y pequeñas tragedias que sacuden a sus personajes, y, aunque uno es consciente de la lucidez que la autora demuestra en cada escena, en cada diálogo, en cada comentario, quizás sea esta la razón de que uno termine preguntándose si la novela es en verdad tan brillante como le ha parecido, si no hubiera sido mejor concentrar las balas sobre muchos menos objetivos. De cualquier forma, lo que es innegable es que la literatura de Zadie es un río que fluye rápido, caudaloso y sonoro que te engancha desde el principio y ya no te suelta hasta el final.

La autora retrata aquí la situación que viven dos familias conectadas por la enemistad y rivalidad entre los dos maridos, profesores universitarios ideológicamente enfrentados y muy vulnerables a las crisis que se suelen producir a cierta edad, esa edad en la que los bríos sexuales de la juventud aún resisten el paso de ese tiempo que empieza ya a celebrar sus victorias sobre nuestro cuerpo y nuestra mente. Un estado que se ve complicado con un mal que suele afectar de modo especial al sector masculino con el agravante de pertenencia al mundo académico: la vanidad, la necesidad constante de admiración, de nuevos admiradores y, sobre todo, admiradoras, que les lleva a distorsionar la perspectiva que tienen de lo que poseen en sus vidas y de lo que realmente importa.

Junto, delante y detrás de estas batallas docentes, con las que la autora se muestra implacable, de los lances matrimoniales y de la siempre problemática relación con los hijos, que sobrellevan como pueden sus etapas de maduración, en la novela se dispara con distinto grado de puntería sobre una amplia lista de conflictos - raciales, culturales, económicos, de género…- abundando los comentarios más o menos ácidos sobre lo que los miembros de cada estamento piensan sobre los miembros de cualquier otro, y, aunque no caben dudas sobre cuáles son sus preferencias, la autora reparte bien los golpes.

Por supuesto, la obra es además una novela sobre la belleza, sobre las distintas formas de verla, de encontrarla en objetos y personas, también sobre la esclavitud que supone rendirle culto, que es casi siempre una esclavitud al deseo ajeno.
“Seguirían siendo objetos de deseo en vez de sujetos que deseaban... Aun se mataban de hambre, aún leían revistas femeninas que explícitamente odiaban a las mujeres, aún se hacían cortes con pequeñas cuchillas en sitios que no se veían, o eso creían ellas, aun fingían orgasmos con hombres que les desagradaban, aún mentían a todo el mundo acerca de todo.”
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,009 reviews4,008 followers
March 20, 2011

This is a book full of unbeautiful people: obnoxious teenagers, philandering academics, stuffy professors, right-on street rappers, wispy rich kids and more obnoxious teenagers. Zadie takes a scalpel to Anglo-American academic relations, probing away at the race/class issues with her usual mordant unflinching cruelty and compassion. She plants a series of depth charges in the lives of her wibbling characters, watching them each explode in turn into quivering heaps of gloopy suet. As ever, the ride is a scream.
Profile Image for Katie.
264 reviews333 followers
January 20, 2019
On Beauty begins as a kind of cover version of EM Forster's Howards End but it soon becomes evident that Zadie Smith has far too much creative brio to bind herself to someone else's inspirations. It's like she's soon magically improvising around a couple of central riffs. The interesting thing perhaps is that most of the weaker parts of this novel are when she's holding closely to Forster's parameters. This a tremendously witty novel full of lived modern life brilliantly described. It's essentially the story of two families colliding with each other with a violence that breaches the ramparts that have previously provided order and a measure of harmony. The Belseys are a mixed-race family, half English, half American. The father a liberal white professor, his wife a black American nurse. The novel begins with Howard's Christian son having a brief affair with the daughter of his nemesis, Sir Monty Kipps, a black outspoken conservative professor at the same American university. From this moment on, the tensions between the two families will let loose a horde of angels and demons. It's a novel pulsating with fabulous observations about modern life; a novel populated with memorable compelling characters; and a novel brimming with wisdom and yes, beauty.
Profile Image for Helene Jeppesen.
685 reviews3,643 followers
July 12, 2017
Contrary to a lot of people's opinions, I loved this book! The first couple of chapters were unpredictable and refreshing, and the rest of the book was an amazing story about family life, marriage problems, racism, growing up, and beauty.
I loved every single character, and while especially one of them behaved irrationnally, it was entertaining and informative to read about his decisions and the ensuing repercussions.
"On Beauty" was one of those books that grabbed me from beginning till end, and while I've only read one other novel by Zadie Smith, this one has been my favourite so far. It was easy to read and yet a very universal book that I think everyone can benefit from reading - even though it does seem that some people don't really like this novel at all.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,566 reviews56k followers
November 16, 2020
(3 From 1001 Books) - On Beauty, Zadie Smith

On Beauty is a 2005 novel by British author Zadie Smith, loosely based on Howards End by E.M. Forster.

On Beauty centers on the story of two families and their different yet increasingly intertwined lives. The Belsey family, consists of university professor Howard, a white Englishman; his African-American wife Kiki; and their children, Jerome, Zora and Levi.

They live in the fictional university town of Wellington, outside Boston. Howard's professional nemesis is Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian living in Britain with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael.

The Belsey family has always defined itself as liberal and atheist, and Howard in particular is furious when his son Jerome, lately a born-again Christian, goes to work as an intern with the ultra-conservative Christian Kipps family over his summer holidays.

After a failed affair with Victoria Kipps, Jerome returns home. However, the families are again brought closer nine months later when the Kippses move to Wellington, and Monty begins work at the university.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز بیست و سوم ماه جولای سال 2007میلادی

عنوان: درباره ی زیبایی (از زیبایی)؛ نویسنده: زادی اسمیت؛

رمان «درباره زیبایی (از زیبایی)» اثر «زادی اسمیت» است، که سال 2005میلادی منتشر، و با تحسین منتقدان روبرو شد؛ از این کتاب فیلمی سینمایی نیز اقتباس، و ساخته شده‌ است؛ داستان، زندگی یک خانواده ی دو نژاده ی «امریکایی-بریتانیایی» را روایت میکند، که در «ایالات متحده ی امریکا»، زندگی میکنند.؛ درونمایه ی داستان، به «نژاد پرستی»، «سیاهپوستان امریکا و بریتانیا»، «ماهیت زیبایی»، «تضاد میان ارزشهای مدرن و سنتی»، و «انزوا در جامعه ی دانشگاهی»، میپردازد

چکیده داستان: «از زیبایی» داستان ِ دو خانواده ی «بلسی»، شامل «هاوارد (پروفسور انگلیسی سفید پوست)»، همسر ا«فریقایی-امریکایی» ایشان، «کیکی»، و فرزندانشان «جروم»، «زورا» و «لِوی»، که در شهرک دانشگاهی «ولینگتون»، خارج از «بوستون» روزگار میگذرانند؛

دشمن اصلی «هاوارد»، «مانتی کیپس»، بومی جزیره ی «کارائیب» است، که اکنون در «بریتانیا»، به همراه همسرش «کارلن»، و دو فرزندشان «ویکتوریا»، و «مایکل» به سر میبرند؛

خانواده ی «بلسی» در سراسر داستان، رفتاری روشنفکرانه دارند، به ویژه زمانیکه «هاوارد»، از رفتار پسرش «جروم»، خشمگین میشود، که او تازه، به مسیحیت روی آورده، و به عنوان «انترن (کارورز)»، همه ی تعطیلات تابستانش را، به همراه خانواده ی «کیپس»، که مسیحی بیش از حد و پیرو سنت هستند، سر کار میرود.؛ اما پس از شکست عشقی، که «جروم» با «ویکتوریا کیپس» داشت، به خانه بازمیگردد.؛

با این وجود، این دو خانواده، دوباره پس از نه ماه، باز هم باهم روبرو میشوند، درست زمانیکه، خانواده ی «کیپس» به «ولینگتون» میآیند، و «مانتی»، در دانشگاه آغاز به کار میکند.؛ «کارلن» و «کیکی»، علیرغم مخالفتهای خانوادگی، با هم دوست میشوند.؛ رقابت میان «مانتی» و «هاوارد»، تا جایی پیش میرود، که «مانتی» به مبارزه علیه نظرات روشنفکرانه، دست میزند، و مبارزه را تحت عنوان «فعالیت مثبت» معرفی میکند.؛

در کل، دیدگاه این دو خانواده، به همراه ارزشها و ایده های ناهماهنگشان، به آهستگی به هم پیوند میخورد.؛

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 25/08/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Fabian.
940 reviews1,546 followers
August 17, 2018
Smith accomplishes much in this, her third novel. "Autograph Man" was sadly not memorable enough & "White Teeth", the novel that quickly turned her into the valedictorian of all modern young writers, was epic but also did not engage me too much.

"On Beauty" is exceptionally readable, relevant/modern, complicated, witty. She's honed her skills, & one must be a 'lil jealous.

Like I told G. just yesterday: it contains that Middlesexian moment of profound awe. Modern novels, at least those that are implemented into the canon (think: The Poisonwood Bible, The Corrections...), must either have that moment where a tear kinda materializes because emotions are too vivid, or because the scene contains awesomely understated beauty. "On Beauty," on second thought, has both. If I reveal that the scene where once was there was a closet-full of colorful clothes and now only a suit remains... well I don't reveal too TOO much. This is well written, poignant.

I must say that I AM a fan of Smith. Before I would say it too bluntly, I guess because that was en vogue. But after reading this novel, in close competition with "The Corrections" as the Great (American....British) Novel (version: 21 st century), I honestly say I can't wait for the next one. On "On Beauty"'s fate: It will be harvested for its amazing prose, insightful jewels of paragraph, and transplanted onto Sophomore-level English textbooks to be read by future generations.
Profile Image for Audrey.
9 reviews1 follower
October 6, 2007
I'm beginning to think the problem isn't the books, but me. I was really, really primed to like this book. Not only had one friend spoken favorably of it, another had seen to it that the book was carried all the way from Malawi, Africa to New York and then sent to me.

I am embarrassed to report I had a hard time even finishing it. My primary complaint is contrivances. The dialogue was unnatural to me...and the plot, my goodness. It was hard enough to believe in such a deep academic feud between the father and his rival...but then the rivals move down the street and the feud continues but the moms are friends so when one of them dies and they just all HAPPEN to be near the same part of England the Belsey family attends the funeral and Howard does it with the same girl his son had been in love with. Meanwhile, back in their American lives the family runs into Carl not only at a concert but then he also comes to their house, then sees them again and he just so happens to be a spoken word poet at the place where Zora's poetry teacher loves to go, and for a while Levi is enamored of Carl but then falls in with a group of Haitians and as he gets to know them learns that they also hate Howard's rival and it all has to do with the very same painting that Howard's rival's wife gave to Kiki Belsey but was temporarily misappropriated by Howard's rival. And then it happens to wind up under Kiki's bed.

It was too much for me. I liked the ending, though, in that there was no real redemption for Howard, just a kind of fizzling. Parts were well written. Parts.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Nikki (Saturday Nite Reader).
390 reviews102 followers
July 20, 2018

3.5 stars

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is 442 pages. A very, very slow 442 pages in which you need to be fully engaged and present while reading. This is not a book you can breeze through, as the book would mention of certain characters: it is intellectual. There is no doubt that Smith is a talented writer, I just struggled a bit in establishing a reading pace with this one.

On Beauty follows the Belsey family: an interracial couple, Howard and Kiki, married thirty years living in an upper middle class town with their three children, Jerome, Zora and Levi.

- Howard is an art history professor at a local liberal arts college who is hard to like; he always has an opinion (its most always negative) and he’s always right (or so he thinks)
- Kiki used to be a beautiful spitfire but has gained a significant amount of weight; still a spitfire but that magnetic confidence doesn’t exude from her like it used to (I blame Howard)
- Jerome is a young man trying to find himself in religion and grapples with adulthood and his relationship with his family; he is the rational one of the bunch
- Zora is Howard 2.0 with the spunk of Kiki; she yearns to be accepted but her approach in getting what she yearns for is more alienating than endearing
- Levi is sixteen and going through an identity crisis; he is passionate and loyal and trying to find something worth fighting for (his family doesn’t understand him – as any teenager would say)

What was once a well-oiled machine of a marriage becomes broken overnight. Howard and Kiki dealing with who they once were and who they are now, and the kids trying to come into their own while their parents unravel makes for an interesting household. Cue in a slew of other characters that will bring out the best and worst of the Belsey clan.

The story addresses culture norms, social class, political differences, stereotypes, personal vendettas and the like. It was portrayed in such a way that you did not feel the story was trying to lead you to believe one point of view over another; it was more about perspective. It’s an authentic portrayal of the inner workings of a family and the façade they provide the outside world versus what its really like when the front door is closed.

It had a very funny start and I was hopeful of the tone it set, but then I got lost in the weeds when the writing became too granular on the subject of art and literature. There would be pages upon pages of description and I rather prefer dialogue: bring back Kiki and her likeable charm. Kiki, Jerome and Levi were the only characters I liked; much of the others were highly irritating.

It’s a thought-provoking read and made for some good conversation at book club. It’s not a summer vibe read, but may be a good read cozied up in a blanket with fuzzy socks near a fireplace with a cup of hot-chocolate (now who is being too descriptive?!).

To read my reviews visit: www.saturdaynitereader.com
Profile Image for Paul.
1,160 reviews1,921 followers
May 11, 2015
I find myself liking Zadie Smith more and more. The blurb about this wasn’t immediately promising; another novel about a middle-aged academic having an affair resulting in a family and personal crisis. However, there is much more going on. Smith herself has acknowledged that it is an Homage to Howard’s End. The author creates a multitude of voices, all interesting in their own right. It is set in a fictional American university town, Wellington (a thinly disguised Harvard).
The novel revolves around the Belsey family; Howard, the white male academic described earlier, his African-American wife Kiki and their three children, Zora, Levi and Jerome. Howard is a left wing (ish) liberal and he has an academic rival, Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian who is rather right wing (whilst writing this I am suddenly reminded of Naipaul who is Trinidadian and was a fan of Thatcher; but the resemblance ends there). Monty’s wife Carlene and Kiki become friends and the two families become entwined in a number of ways. The Belsey children are really well drawn. Smith captures the right level of warmth, hope, youthful verve and irritatingness for three teenage children.
There is a warmth and humanity to all the characters, even Howard and Monty, both hypocrites. The university and academia types are brilliant and capture the machinations of academic life; thankfully there isn’t too much of them and usually the children take centre stage. Smith satirises everyone on all sides of the cultural divides we all inhabit; but without losing the warmth mentioned above. The politics of race and gender are handled here with great humour and Smith maintains a serious moral compass and shows the importance of connections in human relationships. There are some genuinely funny moments; Howard’s reaction to the glee club and his relating of it to his wife for example. There are also moments of great perception; Howard simply does not seem to understand the reactions to his infidelity. As for the second infidelity; it is breath-taking in its timing and inappropriateness. His family around him understand him all too well and let him know.
This is a good comic novel, which has great humanity and is a seriously good read.

Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 2 books3,261 followers
May 31, 2012
I was deeply displeased with this book. I can't believe I actually finished it; I liked neither the characters nor the language nor the style. I only read it because I got it for free (found it on the street in a pile of other middling titles), but though that excuses my starting it, it does not at all excuse my slogging through, stubbornly determined, all the way to the end. The truth is this: I was too lazy to figure out what to read next, which is incredibly idiotic, so I deserved what I got. There were a few moments right there toward the end when she pulled all the semi-disparate plotlines together and I was fairly impressed seeing how it all fit, but all in all? This book sucked and I kind of suck for reading it.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,535 reviews1,793 followers
October 29, 2019
Overall my impression is that Zadie Smith is a nice person, but putting her book in my hands is a bit like putting two boxers of completely different weight categories into the same ring. She came at me quick with dancing feet and rapid blows that I took coolly, after four hundred and forty pages she punched herself out and collapsed exhausted against the ropes. But she seemed really nice.

I saw that On Beauty is meant to be an homage to Howard's End, naturally I labour under the mild disadvantage of never having read that novel - but I did see a TV adaptation, scowling slightly I tried to work out the correspondences and drew up a mental diagram - Carl Thomas = Leonard Bast , therefore the Belseys must be the Schlegels (except with parents still alive because Forster is maybe not Victorian enough for Smith) and so the Kipps are the Wilcoxes with post colonial exploitation in the place of old fashioned colonial exploitation. Smith carries over several of Forster's set pieces, still overall my impression even from a TV adaptation is that Smith and Forster are not in the same league , they are probably several divisions apart.

Still my feeling is that On Beauty's debt to Howard's End is small, reading I was tempted to see it as a rewriting of The Tempest - which was referenced twice directly in the text - the two academics, stiff legged dogs snarling at each other on Caliban's island, both still bleeding and raw from their fight over Milan - and the ending hints at retirement and the burning of the books, but more seriously armed by having read Changing my Mind I feel that what this book is, is a sitcom. She starts with the basis of the odd couple - husband and wife, father and son, master and servant and constructs an entire odd family and then dumps an equally odd family at the other end of the same road, woa-hoo, sit back and watch the sparks fly and crazy stuff happen, except, snore, snore, nothing much does happen, I think it would be a step to far to say that it has a plot though the borrowings from Howards' end give it some structure in the same way that a blanket draped over the backs of a pair of chairs for a child might represent a house or a cave, or something. What she has instead of plot are characters, lots of characters, many of them are like Athena, they step fully formed from Zadie Smith's head and seem fleshed out and detailed enough to be the main character of another novel, but in this one they will feature just for a few pages.

I generally don't give up on novels, in any case this one is nice, it has lots of characters, but it just lacks, for me, life, reading it was watching a comedy that was relentlessly unfunny, or a news broadcast without any news, at one point I had an odd itching sensation to see what was on TV instead: there was Dog rescuers, The A-team in which Mr T seemed to have constructed a gun boat out of cheese graters (it sinks, but only after the bad guys have been punched and thrown out of helicopters), and the local news - with a special feature on shopping trolleys, the sweet surrealism of daily life. But I had read Changing My Mind and found myself playing Zadie Smith Bingo, and my God, everything there in those essays you can find here with the difference that in the essays I felt that she loved writing and was filled with passion and joy that she shared with the reader while this was more like a fish dying on a river bank, and not a species of fish that one could look forward particularly to eating either.

In my Zadie Smith bingo I got that she does not write write drafts just the one version - which accounts for the abrupt transformation in Mrs Kipps between her first appearance and her second in which she behaves like Mrs Wilcox which added for me the most noticeable humour as Mrs Kipps and Mrs Belsey struggle to communicate using social norms that are a hundred years apart. The scaffolding, or super dense writing a perfect example on page 17 in which Zadie Smith force-feeds us Kiki Belsey's ancestors - this is very kind of Smith because the enslavement of black people in the USA was historically so rare and extraordinary that the reader really must be told that her great-great grandmother was a slave - none of these ancestors counts for anything in the following story, even that she is the owner of the family house turns out to be an irrelevant detail which just leaves an odd puzzle at the end of the book .

My overall impression is that Zadie Smith is a Victorian novelist, specifically the love child of early Charles Dickens and mid career George Eliot, but with an awareness of the injustices of race. Her writing on race here was not as interesting as I had anticipated from Changing My Mind, instead for me the lurking presence of the Haitians was a kind of internal rebuke against the sitcom light heartedness of the conscious novel. That the main characters are black, with just the occasional token white person, which somehow came over as twee rather than radical - as though the pitch to the publisher was 'hey, this is going to be a campus novel, but with a twist', forty or fifty years ago it would have been fresh and provocative, but now seems to me to be barely shrug worthy - it is still a sitcom with a university campus setting, the skin colour adds the slightest edge to the fact that they rely on Haitian cleaners, taxi drivers and similar menial labourers but since the main characters are mostly pretty good at ignoring the intersection of race and socio-economic precariousness with it's background of US policy in the Caribbean. And I am not sure that Smith knew quite what to do with all these Haitians in her novel either, just as with all her other characters I have the feeling they are there because she likes to dream up characters.

We are made aware of beauty all the way through, mostly through the physical appearance of characters, on the whole the men were more beautiful while the women were more critically appraised and even when presented to the reader as attractive we are reminded that their beauty is transitory I did feel this showed some anxiety on the part of the author as though she could not see any woman older than thirty as beautiful, this sits alongside some considerations of certain Rembrandt paintings. To me his paintings are beautiful but mostly not of beautiful people, I sense though that my personal impression overpowers the use that Smith was making of Rembrandt in her story - or maybe not. A hundred years ago I think this could have been a contender, to me reading this book today knowing that it was written not that long ago it feels like just so much old hat.
January 15, 2022
There was a certain amount of hype surrounding this book, and on the front cover, it is said to be a funny and clever book. Well, I'll tell you here and now, don't believe a single word of any of it. Get out while you still can! This book is a prime example of one I'd swiftly throw out of the window without looking back, but unfortunately for me, I borrowed this from my Mother, so today she may gladly have it back.

Since this is my first Zadie Smith book, I must say, we haven't gotten off to a good start. The book closely resembles "Howard's End" another book that didn't thrill me, but I wasn't looking for resemblances, I was looking for something fresh and new, and maybe some light entertainment.

The plot is bland. Nothing remotely exciting happens, and the characters are far too skeletal for my tastes, and the only emotions her characters managed to within me, is annoyance. The diologue is irritating, and it made me wonder why Smith makes out that Americans actually talk like that.

Where was the beauty theme? It was paper thin, and you need to dig deep to find even a snippet of it. There wasn't any obvious beauty within this plot, but Smith felt the need to inform the reader every couple of chapters which woman Howard was dipping his bread into.

I am aware this book won a couple of prizes, plus, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2005. The book releases that year must have been dire, for this to have even been considered for the prize. I am so relieved to to be writing this, as it means I can finally move on, and quickly forget that I've ever read this book.
Profile Image for Ana Cristina Lee.
641 reviews236 followers
July 20, 2021
Esta ha sido mi última lectura del Black History July – iniciativa de Trotalibros – y tengo que decir que no podría haber encontrado un mejor broche para un mes que me ha resultado muy enriquecedor. Todas las lecturas han sido interesantes y me han acercado a autores que desconocía. Comencé por la estupenda Todo se desmorona de Chinua Achebe de quien pronto leeré las dos siguientes entregas de la trilogía. También leí dos obras de CF escritas por mujeres: Parentesco de Olivia Butler y Binti de Nnedi Okorafor y un noir ambientado en LA en los años 40, El demonio vestido de azul de Walter Mosley. Imprescindible la biografía novelada de Marysé Condé, Corazón que ríe, corazón que llora donde nos hace partícipes de los desgarros culturales que conlleva la colonización. Finalmente Volver a casa de Yaa Gyasi repasa – a través de dos familias – la historia del esclavismo y las cicatrices culturales que ha dejado.

Sobre la belleza también habla de racismo pero amplía el concepto; no es ya una cuestión simple de blancos oprimiendo a los negros sino que Zadie Smith retrata otros tipos de opresión además de la raza: la de clase social y la de género. Es una novela realista, pero al mismo tiempo muy densa y tremendamente intelectual – no en vano los protagonistas son dos profesores de una pequeña universidad de la Costa Este americana. En ellos y sus familias la autora parece encarnar la lucha dialéctica que se da en el mundo occidental entre las ideas socialdemócratas y el nuevo liberalismo económico y social que aboga por la no intervención del Estado y considera que no hay que sobreproteger a las minorías. Esta contraposición no va ligada necesariamente a la raza: en la novela el ultraconservador doctor Kipps es de raza negra, mientras que su némesis académica y abanderado de la discriminación positiva, el doctor Belsey, es blanco.

Creo que es ante todo una reflexión política, aunque lo que seguimos es el día a día – magníficamente relatado – de dos familias, lleno de anécdotas y subtramas aparentemente intrascendentes, que van tejiendo un retrato muy completo de un entorno concreto pero que se puede aplicar a cualquiera de nuestras sociedades multiculturales en la actualidad.

Zadie Smith pone en boca de sus personajes frases polémicas como la siguiente:

Al parecer todo el mundo tiene un trato especial: los negros, los gays, los liberales, las mujeres… todos menos los pobres hombres blancos.

Hay que ir con cuidado con el término ‘liberal’, ya que en USA equivale a nuestro ‘progresista’, mientras que en Europa representa la política contraria a la socialdemocracia.

También la juventud y la belleza están presentes en todo momento como factores que impulsan las relaciones – a menudo los choques – entre los diversos actores:

Es verdad que los hombres… son sensibles a la belleza… es una constante en ellos, este… interés por la belleza como realidad física en el mundo… y eso es algo que los condiciona e infantiliza… pero es la realidad…

Esta belleza, a la que aspira la creación artística pero que también puede destruir una familia o crear vínculos de amor y amistad, la autora a menudo la presenta asociada al concepto de raza:

Levi tenía la idea, que nunca expresaría en voz alta y que desde luego era una insensatez, la idea de que, en cierto modo, Félix era como la esencia de la negritud. Al mirarlo pensabas: ‘Ahí está toda la diferencia; eso es lo que los blancos temen y adoran y desean y temen.’

El papel de la belleza en la civilización occidental y en el concepto de racismo se encarna en las posturas antagónicas de los doctores Belsey y Kipps, ambos especialistas en Rubens, un pintor que define y fija los valores estéticos de la raza blanca. El primero considera que la belleza en el arte no es más que una máscara del poder y la opresión, mientras que el segundo reverencia a un pintor que conforma el canon estético de occidente.

El racismo y la marginación van también ligados a factores de clase social. Vemos como Levi, hijo de un profesor blanco y una madre activista afroamericana, al acercarse a los inmigrantes haitianos es consciente de su grado de marginación:

Prueba a ir por la calle con quince haitianos si quieres ver incómoda a la gente. Se sentía un poco como Jesús dando un paseo con los leprosos.

Zadie Smith va más allá del color de la piel para hablar de racismo; en su ambicioso análisis de las capas sociales retrata situaciones muy variadas y nos confronta con la alternativa de nuestro tiempo: protección de los débiles o la ley del más fuerte. Pero el gran mérito de la novela es que, tratando temas tan transcendentales, no abandona nunca el sentido del humor y una mirada benévola sobre los personajes que nos los hace muy próximos.

En fin, es una lectura tan rica y divertida que no aspiro a resumirla en estas pocas líneas; Zadie es una autora de gran talento que merece la pena conocer, pero ciertamente no es aconsejable para quien esté buscando algo ligerito y poco intelectual.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews583 followers
July 7, 2019
They are the damned
and so their sadness is perfect,
delicate as an egg placed in your palm.
Hard, it is decorated with their face
(Excerpted from "On Beauty")

In this novel of intellectualism, where street lingo is interspersed through dialogue, there is performance poetry and academic poetry; liberal academics angrily debate conservative academics about the right to one's belief and the need for inclusivity; Haitian workers form a resistance to low wages; two families of intellectuals, the Belsey and Kipps families, remain social enemies and at the helm of these families are the wives, Kiki and Carlene, who become friends. The story seems rooted in the women: Kiki, Carlene, Vee, Zora, and Claire. The children from both marriages become lovers and foes,the issue of race and class is viewed in each character's experience, and at every juncture of the story, there is a need for community, a search for identity, a fight against exclusivity. And did I forget to mention, there is art (Rembrandt).

In case you haven't already envisioned it, this novel is complex, compactly packed with various issues and innuendo, yet it exists freely, lightly, and explores everyday lives even while embodying an existential message. Admittedly, I went back and forth with my rating: higher, then lower, and finally higher. I found that as I turned the pages of this book into the middle of the night, I thought long and hard after I closed it. For me, this is a sign of a book that has enriched my reading experience, enriched my mindset, enriched my life. Sure, I had a love-hate relationship with the dialogue, which permeates the story: some parts were effective, some parts appeared sluggish, some scenes-in-dialogue were a bit unconvincing, some descriptions, like seeing "your mum rang" painted in graffiti in a East Coast 'hood' seemed unbelievable ("mum" spelled that way and "rang" as the word choice? Too English, the phrase ). Yet I marveled at the authentic portrayal of black intellectuals (a portrayal you rarely see in novels), enjoyed the juxtaposition of religious and political views, appreciated the elucidation of interracial marital struggles (especially once Howard Belsey's father, Harold, is introduced).

I turned the pages and realized the beauty of this novel: the narrative is vociferous enough to enthrall even the most distracted reader, the prose is so opulent that it gives you perspective during exposition that could sometimes be one-page-paragraphs, the dialogue is both facetious and deliberate. I found myself drawn to Carl, the street poet who is given a chance to sit in (or 'audit') a poetry class, even though he is not a college student. He is later given a job at the college, a hip hop music archivist, until his world crashes when he is placed in the midst of the hypocrisy of academics, the hypocrisy of privilege and class and gender and race. Carl's story makes lucid much of what the novel portrays, shows how love's intentions may be well-meaning but selfish and how bureaucracy could trump good will.
Profile Image for Sally.
76 reviews34 followers
August 7, 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!
Profile Image for B the BookAddict.
300 reviews655 followers
December 27, 2015

Alive is the word which springs to mind about this novel. It is a glorious, page-turning, rip-snorter of a tale through the lives of a white British college professor, Howard Belsey who's married to a black American, their three near-adult children and Howard's nemesis – Monty Kipps.

My favorite part is Howard's reaction while listening to the glee club singers at the formal college dinner; uproariously funny and totally priceless!

This is a novel where I would love to read a prequel and a sequel if Ms Smith would be so kind as to write them. I just want more and more of this family and of Smith's gorgeous prose. The review which has the novel in a nutshell and by far the best is:

MJ Nicholls's review
Mar 20, 11

5 of 5 stars
bookshelves: novels, sassysassenachs, tortured-artists, distaff
Read from March 13 to 16, 2011

This is a book full of unbeautiful people: obnoxious teenagers, philandering academics, stuffy professors, right-on street rappers, wispy rich kids and more obnoxious teenagers. Zadie takes a scalpel to Anglo-American academic relations, probing away at the race/class issues with her usual mordant unflinching cruelty and compassion. She plants a series of depth charges in the lives of her wibbling characters, watching them each explode in turn into quivering heaps of gloopy suet. As ever, the ride is a scream.

MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I'm with MJ Nicholls; a definite 5★
Profile Image for Prerna.
220 reviews1,259 followers
August 6, 2021
Now I know nothing about E M Forster, sadly, I haven't read any of his books yet. I obviously did not read Howard's end, the book On Beauty is based on, is inspired by. Yet, I can tell you that most of this book, perhaps even all of this book, is about seduction. All sorts of seduction - sexual, intellectual, the pull of a different identity, the allure of the 'almosts'. And so it's also about all the various characters rejecting, resisting, accepting, reluctantly pursuing, enthusiastically falling prey for these seductions.

Another relevant theme that sometimes just lurks in the background and sometimes just ambushes you full-force, is music. There's a very comical, emotional, confusing concert featuring Mozart's requiem, there's revolutionary hip-hop and spoken word, there's rap, there's Haitian music, there's extremely distressing funeral music and a horribly embarassing, very funny scence featuring a glee club.

There are extremes - political extremes, ethical extremes, academic extremes, racial extremes. You are pulled forward in every direction until you can't help but firmly stay rooted to your spot and scream "Oh my God, leave me alone" in agony.

Underneath all of this, Rembrandt and his paintings, and visual arts in general, follow us like vengeful spirits. They cast their ever-watchful eye upon us, the readers, as we stumble through the text and try to decide which character's take on art we like best. And just when we think we know, there's that inescapable question: what does any of this even mean?
Profile Image for Jennifer.
211 reviews13 followers
August 9, 2007
While I did not absolutely hate this book, I really disliked it from the beginning and kept reading in hopes it would redeem itself. Alas, it did not. In fact, there really isn't many redeeming qualities in the story or the characters whatsoever. The book was written with some style, but as far as the storyline and the characters go, the book should have been called On Destruction...which is, as it seems to me to be, where every character was bent on going in their own oblivion. I did not have any sympathy for or empathy with any of them and that I think is a huge fault in the development. Furthermore, the colloquialisms in some of the dialogues were off; the scenes as well as the characters fell a little flat.
Profile Image for Helle.
376 reviews367 followers
July 31, 2016
Sassy, smart and street-wise is what this novel is; what Zadie Smith is. With a literary nod to a favourite novel of mine, Howards End - which is anything but sassy and street-wise - this is a novel that only Zadie Smith could pull off. As in White Teeth and NW, it is teeming with snappy conversations, larger-than-life characters, literary references and unlikely plot developments (partly grâce à Forster); in short On Beauty is full of life and soul.

The prose crackles and sparkles, and once again we witness Zadie Smith’s trademark ear for different dialects and sociolects, rap and literature. And while many of her sentences are eloquent and the topics serious, they are also full of mirth. It is perhaps what I appreciate the most: her wit. Because it is invariably coupled with heart and smarts.

Here Howard, middle-aged intellectual Brit transplanted to the United States courtesy of his voluptuous, African-American, non-intellectual (and utterly wonderful) wife, Kiki, is having a conversation with a curator at the college where he teaches (who speaks the first line):

’Ag’inst Rembrandt’, the second man said. He had a high-pitched Southern voice that struck Howard as a comic assault for which he had been completely unprepared. ‘That was the title your assistant mailed us – I’m just tryna figger what you meant by ‘ag’inst’ – obviously my organization are part-sponsors of this whole event, so –‘

‘Your organization –‘

‘The RAS – Rembrandt Appreciate – and I’m sure I’m not an innellekchewl, at least, as a fella like you might think of one…’

‘Yes, I’m sure you’re not,’ murmured Howard. He found that his accent caused a delayed reaction in certain Americans. It was sometimes the next day before they realized how rude he had been to them.

Forster dealt in social classes: the cultured intellectual Schlegells, the moneyed business people - the Wilcoxes, the working class man - Leonard Bast, who were all trying to bridge the gap between their classes; between literature and life – to ‘only connect’. In On Beauty Zadie Smith takes us to a college town in New England, and so her groups are Americans, Brits, whites, African-Americans, intellectuals and non-intellectuals, students and rappers, teenagers and their parents – all trying to find their place in the world, to connect or, as in Howard’s case, work through a mid-life crisis. And as in White Teeth, she has created characters that jump off the page and really exist. But On Beauty shines much brighter than WT and NW, in my opinion.

The novel was further from Howards End than I had expected but turned out to be a fantastic book in its own right, allusion to favourite novel or not. When I read her acknowledgements at the end, I nearly broke down (in gratitude? wonder? renewed and double appreciation of Forster and Zadie Smith?) This is what she writes:

It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.
Profile Image for Madeline.
771 reviews47k followers
September 14, 2009
I try to summarize this book for people, and I find that I really can't do it. The story, when you try to outline it, seems much too short to be stretched out across 443 pages. Here is my best attempt at summary:

The story takes place mostly at a fictional East Coast college in the US, although some of the story happens in London. There are two feuding families of academia, but the only pair that even slightly resembles Romeo and Juliet are the two mothers. The book is about race, poetry, art, Haiti, sex, marriage, college, poverty, wealth, politics, Rembrandt, Mozart's Lacrimosa, rap music, death, and a million other tiny things I've probably forgotten. It is funny and sad and beautiful and ugly and loud and quiet and vulgar and touching, and is full of lines like this: "...it is never really very cold in England. It is drizzly, and the wind will blow; hail happens, and there is a breed of Tuesday in January in which time creeps and no light comes and the air is full of water and nobody really loves anybody, but still a decent jumper and a waxen jacket lined with wool is sufficient for every weather England's got to give."
Profile Image for Josh.
291 reviews148 followers
May 4, 2016
Why have I been put off by trying Zadie Smith in the past? Could it be the name of her books? With the names 'On Beauty', 'The Autograph Man', 'White Teeth' or even 'NW', could that have really been the reason why I hadn't read, much less really picked up anything by her? How superficial is that? I have a 'don't judge a book by it's cover' mentality merely because when one judges by the way it looks is ridiculous because I've found some completely ugly covers that have been great books and the opposite, but 'On Beauty'? With its simple cutesy curly cue type on front, the name that yells aesthetics (aesthetically speaking), it was one that was first picked up and not even flipped through, one that was put back onto the bookshelf without a second glance for quite some time. I picked this up out of curiosity, I picked it up because I wanted to go outside the box. This is one that I failed to even look at the excerpt or blurb to what it was about. I climbed onto it and rode on. This story is about the beauty of life and how beauty is completely relative in nature. This bi-racial, bi-cultural symbiosis between man and woman and their story of the world around them is well thought out, ingenious and realistic. Not only is it a story, plain and simple, set out forthwith without abstract meaning, it holds the key to what great story telling is all about: getting to the core of an issue and not hiding it behind a curtain. THIS IS IT, HERE I AM, TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT.

The insecurities with our loved ones, our tendency to be doormats, raw emotion and lessons learned are all on display and this is what makes this a 5-star and not a 4-star.

Anyone can write a book with a story such as this, but understanding what you're writing and knowing HOW to portray what you're writing in a way that it truly makes someone snicker like 'yeah, I know how that is'...that's what does it for me.

Profile Image for Ace.
431 reviews23 followers
August 16, 2018
About a third of the way through I wasn't sure I wanted to know any more about the Belsey or the Kipps families so I ended up reading heaps of other books while this sat waiting for me to return. The ending was strong and had a dash of drama. Not quite as good as White Teeth but better than Swing Time. A gifted author, I need to read her other books.
Profile Image for Dannii Elle.
2,015 reviews1,405 followers
June 21, 2018
Zadie Smith's deep and beautiful insight into the lives of undeep and unbeautiful people is astoundingly brilliant (yes, I am aware that I just made those words up. Let's just call it poetic license).

The book's angle is a pretty simple one: the reader follows the movements of the various members of the Belsey family, and those they come into contact with, over the course of a year or so, and begins to form an insight into how they interact with the world and the people around them. In reality, it is so much more than this.

The Belsey family - comprising of an African American mother, a Caucasian father and three mixed-race children - all struggle with an identity crisis that centres around a multitude of things including their race, gender and their place in the academic world of Wellington (a thinly veiled Harvard) that they reside in.

The complex issues that this novel confronts forced me to confront myself as more than a self-contained entity. We are all so much more than individual beings. Who are we is denoted by our heritage, our ancestry, our upbringing, our peers... We are an amalgamation of everything that came before us and everything we come into contact with, but it is how we process and respond to these factors that defines who we are as a person. And we are all a walking political statement for something, whether we like it or not.

As the characters begin their individual journeys of self-discovery, I departed on one of my own. This book helped me to think about my own place in my own society: every thing I touch and everything that has touched me, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has all made up the person who sits here and writes this today.

If anyone is still reading this self-absorbed waffling then I urge you to pick up and read this book. It touched me soul, and I hope it does yours.
Profile Image for Mary.
423 reviews771 followers
August 1, 2016
This is why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn't be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman's magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki's knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies - it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it. (p.198)

There was nowhere to park. They had to leave the car several blocks from the party itself. Zora had specifically worn the shoes she was wearing because she had not anticipated any walking. To make progress she had to grip her brother around his waist, take little pigeon-steps and lean far back on her heels. For a long time Jerome restrained himself from commentary, but at the fourth pit stop he could keep silent no longer. "I don't get you. Aren't you meant to be a feminist? Why would you cripple yourself like this?"
"I like these shoes, OK? They actually make me feel powerful." (p.408)
Profile Image for Felice Laverne.
Author 1 book3,199 followers
August 29, 2019
Stunningly beautiful. Breathtakingly real. Brilliant, and honestly one of my top 10 favorite novels forever more.
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