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On Beauty [Paperback]

Zadie Smith
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (129 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
Price: 6.29 & FREE Delivery in the UK on orders over 10. Details
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Book Description

6 July 2006

Zadie Smith's On Beauty is a funny, powerful and moving story about love and family

Why do we fall in love with the people we do? Why do we visit our mistakes on our children? What makes life truly beautiful?

Set in New England mainly and London partly, On Beauty concerns a pair of feuding families - the Belseys and the Kipps - and a clutch of doomed affairs. It puts low morals among high ideals and asks some searching questions about what life does to love. For the Belseys and the Kipps, the confusions - both personal and political - of our uncertain age are about to be brought close to home: right to the heart of family.

'The novel I didn't want to finish, I was enjoying it so much' John Sutherland, Evening Standard

'Thrums with intellectual sass and know-how' Literary Review

'Delightfully entertaining . . . filled with humour, generosity and contemporary sparkle' Alex Clark, Daily Telegraph

'My novel of the year . . . Delicious' Liz Jones, Evening Standard

'Satirical, wise and sexy' Washington Post

'Heartstopping' The Times Literary Supplement

'A triumph, Smith's comedy shines' Daily Mail

'Ambitious, hugely impressive, beautifully observed' Guardian

Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975. Her debut novel, White Teeth, won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Prize, and was included in TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Her second novel, On Beauty, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has written two further novels, The Autograph Man and NW, a collection of essays, Changing My Mind, and also edited a short-story anthology, The Book of Other People.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; 1st Penguin Edition edition (6 July 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014101945X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141019451
  • Product Dimensions: 2.8 x 13.2 x 19.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (129 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 32,432 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975. She is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, and of a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is also the editor of The Book of Other People.

Product Description

Amazon 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.

About the Author

Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975, and still lives in the area. She is the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Hey, Dad - basically I'm just going to keep on keeping on with these mails - I'm no longer expecting you to reply, but I'm still hoping you will, if that makes sense. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On Beauty: on balance, pretty good. 3 Sep 2006
Format:Paperback
This book is chiefly about two very different families and the way they interact.

But interwoven through this are meditations on different kinds of beauty: music, art, poetry, inner beauty and the skin-deep variety. Beauty has a disruptive power - it can be used as a kind of weapon - and this is shown in particular by the havoc caused by V, a beautiful young black woman whose strict Christian upbringing does not hold her back from enjoying the social and sexual advantages of beauty and youth.

It is ironic that this book was written by a young author whose own beauty has provoked a ludicrous level of media attention. This is probably unwelcome to ZS, and also unfair to other equally talented, less photogenic novelists.

As someone who struggles painfully between Christian faith and agnosticism, I also appreciated and admired ZS's handling of faith matters. I've not read any other novel that reflects so well my own experience of living in a contradictory, philosophically untenable yet tolerant society of believers, non-believers and don't-carers.

The debate between liberalism and conservatism in the novel is also very interesting. Maybe it's more relevant to American readers, but I think also important for British readers too.

I didn't give it 5 stars (and would probably really give it 3.5) because sometimes the author's art did not always conceal her artfulness. The episode of Levi Belsey proposing direct action at the megastore where he works, for example, seemed staged just to bring about the conflict between two black so-called 'brothers' from different sides of the class-divide. Also, ZS may have been trying to put a message across about the plight of Haitian people, but in the novel I just wasn't interested.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Difficult to see through muddy waters 24 Aug 2007
Format:Paperback
This book was given to me as birthday present, which I requested. And whilst I enjoyed the book on the whole, I kept thinking that the plot and the characters were almost distracted by something profound that Smith was trying to get out.

I enjoyed the relationship troubles of Howard Belsey but I just kept thinking that Smith was attempting to make a statement about it, only I couldn't figure out what it was. I thought that it might have been a view on black people in academic society and the difficulties they face because of their race, or different perceptions. But I'm just not convinced.

The plot was rather slow and laboured I found. There is so little that actually happens. The narrative takes you along as though there will be an explosion of actions, explanations, grand gestures etc - but there isn't. It's quite deflating in many parts of the novel and quite disappointing. Much of the action relies on odd scraps of information about what happened before the setting of the novel, which makes things difficult.

However, where Smith redeems herself is within the characterisation. They are BRILLIANT. I particularly fell in love with Levy. I thought that his youth and vibrancy really made the novel enjoyable. Levy is the son of Howard and Kiki and at the moment he is embracing the African American heritage of rap music and culture. He lightens up proceedings completely. As does his mother Kiki. She reminds me of a warm, soulful and loving woman to whom one could unload a lifetime of troubles and she would listen, dispite the fact that she has problems of her own. I became a bit furious with Jerome and his naivity, but perhaps that's just a sign of Smith's ability to create good characters.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant or Dull? 19 April 2006
Format:Hardcover
Seems as though those who read it find it a wonderful, accomplished and satisfying read, or just rather dull. I am in the middle. Whilst "On Beauty" said "quality" in many ways, I could have put it down at any point and not given a second thought to the fate of any charachter.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tangled, muddled and utterly disappointing. 3 Feb 2007
Format:Paperback
Zadie Smith's third novel is a catastrophe. As usual her characterisation is sensitive and engaging, her dialogue is sharp and her ideas are flowing, but the plot is a disaster. The book was patchy, nonsensical and lacks structure or meaning. The pretentious echoes of Howards End were truly depressing and did not seem to make any sense in the context of the story; in fact I find it insulting that Smith dared to integrate the ideas of such a masterpiece into her own work. They didn't even make any sense in the context of the story. I am confused as to what On Beauty is meant to be about; is it meant to be some kind of profound exploration of modern aesthetics? A radical portrayal of class- and race- related confrontation? Or just a warm-hearted feel-good novel about a priviledged American family? What Smith has done is half-heartedly combine these three into a patchy, rambly book which lacks direction and any kind of resolution. It would need far more editing and far fewer characters it it were to make any sense at all.

E M Forster will be turning in his grave.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Little Disappointing 10 Feb 2007
Format:Paperback
Firstly, let me say that I consider Zadie Smith to be a very good author. However I was a little disappointed by On Beauty. It covers some of the same themes which Smith explored in White teeth such as contrasting male and female attitudes toward love and sex, racial identity and post colonialism. What it lacks however is the energy and passion of her first novel.

That said, this is not a bad novel by any means. Smith at times has a lovely turn of phrase and, just as with White teeth, moves the story along in such a way that makes it hard to stop reading.

Still, it is difficult to understand why On Beauty won Orange Prize for Fiction, while White Teeth did not.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT READING
This is a new author to me - began reading it on Kindle but needed it for my new course at Uni. so wanted to be able to highlight etc so important passages would stand out.
Published 2 months ago by Pamab
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read
Beautiful prose. Smith keeps the reader in suspense as to how Howard and Kiki's relationship will pan out, whilst wondering about their kids, each one so different; Zora so... Read more
Published 7 months ago by polly
3.0 out of 5 stars Product fine
Book chosen as book club read. In general it people liked it, though not the sort of book I would normally read.
Published 8 months ago by Marian
4.0 out of 5 stars A surprisingly good read!
Having read 'White Teeth' by the same author, I wasn't at all sure I'd like this book. The book was hard to get into, starting with a series of emails. Read more
Published 9 months ago by mazza
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyed
Well written and insightful look at American college life
Shows the shallowness of people who think that they are clever
Published 11 months ago by Howard Cartz
1.0 out of 5 stars Dull with unlikeable characters
I am cursed with not being able to leave a book unread so I had to finish it.
Unpleasant character interlaced with dull literary references.
Published 12 months ago by katester
1.0 out of 5 stars just gave up with this one !
couldn't get into it. disjointed and didn't engage with the characters. just gave up. have read one of her others and loved it so this was disappointing
Published 12 months ago by anne nz
5.0 out of 5 stars slow burn book great characterisation
This book burned slowly into my mind. I was unsure where it was going for at least the first 100 pages but I am very glad I persevered. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Mrs. Elizabeth H. Sheldon
4.0 out of 5 stars UNDER-RATED
interesting to see that it seems to split the lovers and haters equally going by the reviews here.I read HOWARDS END last year and absolutely loved it, 5stars. Read more
Published 13 months ago by bettyparry
1.0 out of 5 stars Emperor's new clothes - read Forster instead
I have now read 3 of Smith's novels and failed to enjoy any of them. Every time I read another glowing review assuring everyone that she is a genius (and funny) I became... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Austen Fan
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