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On Beauty Paperback – 6 Jul 2006

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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: 12.9 x 2.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (131 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 15,883 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

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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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Customer Reviews

3.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By J. Pinnock on 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Alison on 9 Dec. 2010
Format: Paperback
Zadie Smith's third novel `On Beauty' reflects many of the authors preferred themes, previously explored in her works of fiction. The comparing and contrasting of ethnic diversity is once again present, as in her first triumph `White Teeth', and concepts of loss and obsession are integrated into this strangely comedic family drama, though manipulated in a different way to what we saw in `The Autograph Man'. `On Beauty' draws parallels with Smith's own upbringing, having an English father and a Jamaican mother, and as well as tackling issues of politics, relationships and intellect, the reader is offered a first hand insight into struggles with racial identity.

The book essentially portrays the demise of a relationship and the multiple actions and arguments that lead to the destruction. These events play out over an extended period of time, expressing the true complexities in the decisions which have to be made when a family is irreversibly damaged. Smith successfully eradicates any traces of naivety or dramatic stereotypes, normally attached to relationship disillusion in fiction. Instead she explores the transformation of the relationship into something unrecognisable and tainted, despite both parties involved longing to rekindle the once beautiful bond.

While the plot is captivating, Smith's unique writing style prevails, with her deeply insightful observations. She manages to exquisitely emphasise minute aspects of body language, or unconscious social prejudices, with a harrowing accuracy. These original manipulations of language, as well as her intricately crafted characterisations, are what I found most powerful. For Smith, the characters are central to exploring the themes of the novel, so consequently she takes time and energy over describing their mannerisms and flaws.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By S. M. HALL on 10 Sept. 2009
Format: Paperback
Amazon and literary critics have complained that On Beauty did not live up to Smith's first novel, White Teeth. I am glad, therefore, that I have not yet read White Teeth and do not feel compelled to make a comparison. On Beauty was an absolutely fanastic read. It covered well worn topics i.e. inter-racial relationships, black identity etc, but it didn't over-explore them. Instead Smith used her knowledge and understanding of these subjects to show that people who have to deal with them also have to deal with the everyday emotional issues of life such as loss of love, growing up, temptation etc.

It seems that Zadie Smith has a deep understanding of art and is able to share this with her readers. Whilst I appreciate art I would not describe myself as an art lover. However, I have found myself looking up Rembrandt on the internet and in the local library. One has to see the picture of Hendrickje bathing to understand it's significance to the end of the novel.

Smith's uses language skillfully and by doing so put's the reader into the mind and psyche of each character.

My only contention with Smith is her characterisation of Kiki. It seemed to me that she was made to fit negative stereo-types of black women. Characterising her as a overweight black women seemed to cast her in a kind of Big Mama type role - always there to deal with everyone's nonsense and so lacking in self-esteem she was unable to free herself from her adulterous, needy husband.

Howver, no-one's perfect but I think On Beauty is the nearest to a perfect novel I've read in a long time.On Beauty
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