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On Beauty: A Novel Paperback – August 29, 2006

3.4 out of 5 stars 298 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In an author's note at the end of On Beauty, Zadie Smith writes: "My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." If it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Forster, perched on a cloud somewhere, should be all puffed up with pride. His disciple has taken Howards End, that marvelous tale of class difference, and upped the ante by adding race, politics, and gender. The end result is a story for the 21st century, told with a perfect ear for everything: gangsta street talk; academic posturing, both British and American; down-home black Floridian straight talk; and sassy, profane kids, both black and white.

Howard Belsey is a middle-class white liberal Englishman teaching abroad at Wellington, a thinly disguised version of one of the Ivies. He is a Rembrandt scholar who can't finish his book and a recent adulterer whose marriage is now on the slippery slope to disaster. His wife, Kiki, a black Floridian, is a warm, generous, competent wife, mother, and medical worker. Their children are Jerome, disgusted by his father's behavior, Zora, Wellington sophomore firebrand feminist and Levi, eager to be taken for a "homey," complete with baggy pants, hoodies and the ever-present iPod. This family has no secrets--at least not for long. They talk about everything, appropriate to the occasion or not. And, there is plenty to talk about.

The other half of the story is that of the Kipps family: Monty, stiff, wealthy ultra-conservative vocal Christian and Rembrandt scholar, whose book has been published. His wife Carlene is always slightly out of focus, and that's the way she wants it. She wafts over all proceedings, never really connecting with anyone. That seems to be endemic in the Kipps household. Son Michael is a bit of a Monty clone and daughter Victoria is not at all what Daddy thinks she is. Indeed, Forster's advice, "Only connect," is lost on this group.

The two academics have long been rivals, detesting each other's politics and disagreeing about Rembrandt. They are thrown into further conflict when Jerome leaves Wellington to get away from the discovery of his father's affair, lands on the Kipps' doorstep, falls for Victoria and mistakes what he has going with her for love. Howard makes it worse by trying to fix it. Then, Kipps is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington and the whole family arrives in Massachusetts.

From this raw material, Smith has fashioned a superb book, her best to date. She has interwoven class, race, and gender and taken everyone prisoner. Her even-handed renditions of liberal and/or conservative mouthings are insightful, often hilarious, and damning to all. She has a great time exposing everyone's clay feet. This author is a young woman cynical beyond her years, and we are all richer for it. --Valerie Ryan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Truly human, fully ourselves, beautiful," muses a character in Smith's third novel, an intrepid attempt to explore the sad stuff of adult life, 21st century–style: adultery, identity crises and emotional suffocation, interracial and intraracial global conflicts and religious zealotry. Like Smith's smash debut, White Teeth (2000), this work gathers narrative steam from the clash between two radically different families, with a plot that explicitly parallels Howards End. A failed romance between the evangelical son of the messy, liberal Belseys;Howard is Anglo-WASP and Kiki African-American;and the gorgeous daughter of the staid, conservative, Anglo-Caribbean Kipps leads to a soulful, transatlantic understanding between the families' matriarchs, Kiki and Carlene, even as their respective husbands, the art professors Howard and Monty, amass matériel for the culture wars at a fictional Massachusetts university. Meanwhile, Howard and Kiki must deal with Howard's extramarital affair, as their other son, Levi, moves from religion to politics. Everyone theorizes about art, and everyone searches for connections, sexual and otherwise. A very simple but very funny joke;that Howard, a Rembrandt scholar, hates Rembrandt;allows Smith to discourse majestically on some of the master's finest paintings. The articulate portrait of daughter Zora depicts the struggle to incorporate intellectual values into action. The elaborate Forster homage, as well as a too-neat alignment between characters, concerns and foils, threaten Smith's insightful probing of what makes life complicated (and beautiful), but those insights eventually add up. "There is such a shelter in each other," Carlene tells Kiki; it's a take on Forster's "Only Connect;," but one that finds new substance here.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; First Printing edition (August 29, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143037749
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143037743
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (298 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,004 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Eva La on September 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book has its moments-- bits of lovely writing, occasional insightful moments, some good laughs. It wasn't a page turner, but I'm not sorry I read it. The book also has a lot of problems, and they distract from the reading experience. The most noteable problem, is, as others have pointed out, the terrible and terribly overdone dialect. The southern graduate student's speech is ridiculous and laughable. Levi's is as well-- and I'm giving smith credit here by assuming it was supposed to be bad dialect, a middle class black american kid emulating slang, but it fails to accurately capture that. Levi speaks like no person in the history of ever, and would be laughed out of his house AND off of any street corner. Moreover, the characters never really come to life-- and this was a book about types I recognized and wanted to like. The Belsey's feel like walking lessons, and fall into cliche. Their feelings are never clear unless they're explicity telling you why they are the way they are. For a while, the sweeping tone of the book and frequent point of view shifts distract from this, but eventually you want a character to hold onto, and there isn't one. The Kipps' are even worse, seeming to exist solely as foils for the Belsey's. Their conservatism and Christianity are so shallow and underutilized from the begining that the subsequent exposure of hypocrisy doesn't pack any sort of punch. No one feels fully imagined. Characters can state a worldview or a self perception, but when all of the characters have to explicitly announce their politics and purposes all the time, it's a problem. More problematically, the pivotal scene of the book isn't really written. It's as if Smith got to the book's climax, realized it was already at least a hundred pages too long, and rushed the ending.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Other reviewers have covered most of what I consider problematic about this book. What bothered me most was that Kiki is a black, Southern woman with absolutely no connection to any black Southern woman I've known or seen. Other reviewers have criticized Smith for her inauthentic dialogue. The inauthenticity extends beyond the dialogue. Smith knows little to nothing about black Southerners. Her description of "soul food," in the book is unrecognizable to any "soul food" emanating from the South. When she has Kiki reverting to her Southern roots, her dialogue, culture, etc. are markedly more Caribbean instead of Southern. The Belsey children speak slang that is Caribbean, not Southern. To some, this may be a minor point, but since Kiki's Florida roots are a central part of her character, that they weren't authentic is troubling.

A sabbatical in New England does not make Smith an authority able to accurately critique American culture, especially black-American culture.
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Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading "On Beauty" after several friends recommended "White Teeth" and I found Smith to be an enormously talented writer who does not humanize her characters. It is hard to say that she does not flesh them out, we do hear their voices but we cannot relate to them except as objects of Smith's satire. There is nothing wrong with writing a purely satirical work but she is trying for something more here and it does not work. After introducing her characters we are ready to enjoy their humor, their failures, their triumphs and eventually their redemptions but, alas, the book ends on a note of cheap revenge that is decidedly unpleasant. She makes some attempts to honor these characters but Smith's basic cynicism does not allow her to do so. I believe Smith believes she is transcending stereotypes by portraying a mixed race marriage and young black intellectuals. Why is it then that Howard, a white, working class man ultimately fails in his dream career and as a family man, that a beautiful, smart black student is portrayed as a sexual predator destroying lives around her. Did Smith so hate her time in America that she has her character Victoria destroy so many lives from the minute she lands here? And on and on with each character whether black or white. One wants to like these characters but she just wont let us. Two scenes I did think were brilliant - the way Claire, the teacher of poetry interacts with her students especially during their evening at The Bus Stop, and the department head making introductory remarks at a faculty meeting with a one line cameo appearance by Smith herself.

Ultimately, this is a mean book with mean characters that leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. I would have given it one star only that Zadie Smith is a brilliant writer. I would say to her "channel your anger, give us believable characters that we can care about". Zadie Smith needs to grow up.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After having read "White Teeth" a few years ago, I was anticipating another novel of similar caliber. What a disappointment!
While she acknowledges up front that it is written as an hommage to E.M. Forster- the storyline is needlessly convoluted in order to mirror the plot of "Howard's End". What's worse are the underdeveloped, frustratingly shallow and across the board uninteresting characters- at the end of the book the reader doesn't particularly care what happens to any of them. I gather the intent was to examine personal relationships through the lens of larger scale issues of class, race, gender and aesthetic- but to say that she falls short is a gross understatement. It just feels so contrived- the dialogue- the meandering plot- the lifeless characters- all of it. This is definitely not a novel that will transport you into the story. It was a complete waste of time to read (I am kicking myself for buying it in hardback)-and such a let-down after having read Ms. Smith's other work.
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