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On Beauty Book Review

07.14.21
On Beauty by Zadie Smith Book Review

The bane of many-a bookworm’s life, is the ever-growing pile of books, waiting to be read, and the endless list of authors that we-know-we-should-have, but simply-haven’t-quite-got-around-to-reading-just-yet. For me, there are many: I’m yet to read James Baldwin; I read Agatha Christie for the first time in my thirties, I’ve read no Margaret Atwood, no Barbara Kingsolver, no Zora Neale Hurston. The list, as it were, goes on, and on, and on. One such author, who I’ve been meaning to read for donkey’s years is Zadie Smith – I’ve owned a number of her books over the years, and have at least three of them in my apartment in Bondi – and yet it was only after recording my podcast with Joanna Rakoff – author of My Salinger Year – that I finally got around to doing it. Joanna chose On Beauty as one of her Desert Island Books, and spoke about it with such verve and passion, that I started it soon after we ended our call.

On Beauty Book Review

First published in 2005, On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s third novel and loosely based on Howard’s End (yet another book for the TBR pile). A book that I knew I would love as soon as I started it, On Beauty follows the story of both the Belsey and the Kipps families and their increasingly different yet intertwined lives. While the Belsey family consists of university professor Howard, a white Englishman; his African-American wife Kiki; and their children, Jerome, Zora and Levi – who live in a fictional suburb of Boston; Monty Kipps – Howard’s professional nemesis – is a Trinidadian living in Britain with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael.

With a flawed cast of characters who are often unlikeable – from the obnoxious teenagers to the philandering academics, from the stuffy professors to the spoilt rich kids – a dual setting of an American college town and the grittier streets of London, and utterly compelling writing throughout, there was so much I loved about On Beauty. I loved the rich prose, I loved the complexities of the family members, and the themes of academia, race, heritage, poetry, art and belonging, I loved the college campus backdrop, and the literary references woven throughout the often unlikely plot developments.

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A rich and beautiful novel that is vivid and vibrant and messy and complex, it was undoubtedly well worth the wait.

To end, my favourite quote from On Beauty:

“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.”

Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith Summary

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?

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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.

Buy On Beauty  from Bookshop.org, Book Depository, Waterstones, Amazon or Amazon AU.

Further reading

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is included in this great list from Vogue editors on 31 books to read before you turn 30.

Zadie Smith Author Bio

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.

More Zadie Smith Books

Zadie Smith has written everything from essays to fiction and criticism, and her books include White Teeth, The Autograph Man, NW, Swing Time and Feel Free.

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