On Beauty Hardcover – September 13, 2005
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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
From Publishers Weekly
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The story is about the families of Belsey and Kipps. Dr. Howard Belsey is a white British man who teaches art history at tony Wellington College. He married an African American woman from Florida, who is a nurse. They have three bi-racial children, two in college and one in high school. Howard’s nemesis is Dr. Monty Kipps, who resides in England with his all African American family, including a wife and two young adult children. Tension between the families continue to mount as the children meet and the family members intermingle. To Howard’s great humiliation, Monty is invited to be a visiting professor at Wellington and moves his family into town. Things are not going well at work or at home for Howard and his marriage is in jeopardy. Somehow, he manages to screw up even more in both areas. Affairs, crushes, and misunderstandings abound on campus and at home for both families.
I gave this book three stars because I did not like any of the characters, with the exception of Kiki Belsey, Howard’s wife. Aspects of the plot were enjoyable. Overall I thought that the book was too long and had too many subplots, though the subplots were at least related to the main themes. The portrayal of political and social life on the college campus was one of the better parts of the book. I think that anyone who has worked on a campus will find this funny and accurate. My favorite scene was when the Belsey’s daughter, a student as Wellington, petitions the dean to get into a class after the professor refuses to admit her. In arguing her case, she implies discrimination and invokes the term “inappropriate” thus sending the dean into a fit of near apoplexy. Game, set, and match to Ms. Belsey! There are some stellar sections in this book, just not enough of them.
I recommend this book to anyone who will be sensitive to the author's blending of cross-cultural relationships, academic pretension and the vivid, consuming woman at the center of the novel. She is both fictional and real.
As some of the critical reviews indicate this is not a universally transferable message, but all those five stars show an audience.
What is education really; what is justice and equity, what is love, what is fidelity, and what effect has aging and insecurity on the male type; and does the female fare any better?
It’s a rambling presentation; I found myself skimming at times until the mounting intrigue, such as it was, locked in my attention -- Perhaps a hundred pages of unneeded detailing.
What she shows so well as how twisted up we can become given our driving internal mechanisms –that’s the fun of it; she knows The Beast.
I think the author may be confused about what states in the U.S. are part of the Deep South (versus Southern), but that was very easy to overlook.
Top international reviews
On Beauty is a book where the characters feel real and stay with you once you put the book down. You feel something for so many characters: fondness, envy, hate. And to top it all off, the book says so much about so many topics in a way only good fiction does .. subtly
To be honest, I'm not sure what to think of this book. It's well written. I can see good writing when I read it, and this is really good writing, it's just not much happens here. If this is about the "US Culture Wars", I can see what she was aiming for. It's just I think that could be told better as a factual book. Both Howard, and Monty feel like cardboard cut-outs of either side of an argument. I don't know many atheists who ban Christmas for their kids, for example. If it's about something else, I can't see it. So if you want a well written fictional account of the US Culture Wars, read this book. If you just want a well written family drama (with some humour involved), you'll like this book too. If you want something else maybe you won't like it so much.