on 10 September 2009
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
on 24 August 2007
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.
All in all I found the book was slow plot-wise but the characters were wonderful and they entertained me more than the plot. I still can't think if Smith's lack of plot was for a specific statement she wanted to make. Perhaps I won't ever find out.
on 15 October 2011
This book is about one family, the liberal atheistic Belseys (Howard, Kiki and their three biracial childrem Jerome, Zora and Levi), and their relationship with the more "religious right" Kipps family (Monty, Carlene and Victoria). Howard and Monty are lecturers who dislike each other, often being used as spokesmen for opposite side of an argument. Howard, despite being English, works in a university near Boston. Monty, a West Indian, gets a job there while the book develops, leading to some bickering between the two. Their disagreement isn't racial (Howard is white, but married to a black woman), it's just their belief systems are diametrically opposed to one another. The book focuses on Howard's dual relationships between Monty and Kiki (largely).
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.
on 28 August 2007
I found this book absolutely compulsive- its full of great dialogue, witty descriptions and is, at times, laugh out loud funny. The funniest part I remember is when Howard is at an academic dinner, and nearly wets himself because a barber-shop quartet are singing U2's In The Name of Love- in a samba style, complete with an impromptu moonwalk. That, alone, nearly had me in tears.
Some may complain that there is no plot. This is true, but because there is such a complex tangle of relationships throughout the book, this simply isn't an issue- in fact, it zips along beautifully. This novel isnt meant to be a fast-paced thriller- it's a study of human relationships. But it is perhaps here that the critics are on to something. For if I were to criticise On Beauty, its that the characters, while being interesting and recognisable, are rather stereotypical. Anyone who's been to university will recognise the clever but overly-eager Zora, or the hippy poetry teacher Claire. But Smith doesn't do enough to develop them. In fact, the characters fit rather too neatly into the reader's expectations. The characters Howard and Monty Kipps, exemplify this- the former a pretentious left-wing intellectual who's not much good at coping with reality, the latter a hypocritical right-wing ideologue. So far, so predictable. But Smith never really problematises this- the Kipps family in particular just weren't developed much beyond their hard-line Christian values. (Although the one exception to this is Kiki's touchingly brief friendship with Monty's wife, Carlene). This rather superficial charcaterisation is both On Beauty's strength, and its weakness. Its strength, in that it caters to its audience very well- if you're middle-class and university-educated, or have a literary inclination, you will revel in this novel's jokes about intellectuals and student life, etc. But the responses of some of the reviews posted here prove that not everyone was enamoured by Smith's potrayal of race relations, or minority ethnic groups.
When you enjoy a book as much as I enjoyed reading this one, you do ask yourself if there's something suspicious about its being too readily appealing. And I think that the criticism above accounts for that. Perhaps, in trying to deal with large, thorny issues, Smith has bitten off more than she can chew, and has skimmed the surface as a result. However, had Smith undertaken a more thorough and complex exploration of these issues, the result would have been a much weighter piece of literature, but a far less enjoyable read.
"Howard's End" indeed, this is Zadie Smith's homage to E M Forster, and there is a skeletal series of references to Forster's great novel in this entertaining and enjoyable book. Howard, a white academic whose main subject is the paintings of Rembrandt, is married to the glorious Kiki, who has glamour, beauty and largesse in abundance. Their oldest boy Jerome has been seconded as an intern to controversial black conservative academic Monty Kipps, and the novel opens with Howard on a mission to rescue Jerome from an `inappropriate' liaison with Kipps' daughter, the beautiful Victoria.
Smith has peopled this novel with a strong cast of intriguing and believable characters, and though she sometimes allows the plot to develop into farce, she keeps them in character. The `warring academics' part of the plot is cleverly played, but the series of disasters befalling Howard threatens to teeter out of control at times. The final scene is a masterpiece of academic disintegration that is both subtle and cutting, as Howard's lecture on Rembrandt is distilled into its perfect essence - a display of beauty.
Very enjoyable, often rollickingly funny, clever and emotionally acute, this is a fine novel.
on 19 April 2006
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.
on 3 September 2006
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. And Jerome was a little underdrawn.
Finally, but most importantly, I thought the novel's spell began to wear off towards the end, and I grew slightly impatient for the whole thing just to be tied up. But this was partly because I hadn't been able to put the book down; and the closing scene is excellent. Overall, the book is very well written.
I actually heard ZS read from her novel at a book festival, and she gamely put on American, English, Nigerian and Jamaican accents to great effect. A novel well suited to be an audio book.
Reader, F, 31.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - Keats
on 11 September 2012
This book concerns the mid-life crisis of a white English art lecturer (Howard) at a prestigious American University and the affect this has on his black American wife (Kiki) and their family of 3 young adults (Jerome, Zora and Levi - 16-20 year olds?).
Whilst the book is not terrible, and has some great scenes in it, I am completely at a loss as to how it received the acclaim it did - I was not convinced by it in the main, it seemed very overwritten. For example, it appears as if Smith had researched a topic purely to add to this book in an attempt to make it seem more artistic (the description of Mozart's Requiem Mass, the paintings of Rembrandt reviewed through the eyes of a character created soley for this purpose) - but unfortunately this doesn't work, it is pretentious and at times patronising. Where Smith has stuck to ordinary life this works much more effectively (such as the amusing scene at the record store with Levi and his subsequent lack of awareness of how people actually view him).
Other reviewers have critisised the lack of plot and praised the characters she has created. This suprises me as I thought the plot was quite good with a few interesting and amusing parts (for example the funeral scene) but I found the characterisation poor and stereotypical (the sycophantic assistants almost grovelling at Howard's feet, the son with his 'street' language in an attempt to find his niche in life, the geeky daughter ('who lives her life through footnotes'), the warm understanding wife, the timid college principal and so on). I didn't really believe in them, they were either one dimensional or confusing.
I would not read another Smith book on the basis of this one, although I have been told White Teeth is much better.
on 11 January 2010
Some of the reviews have been a bit harsh on this book - its certainly flawed but its hardly the worst book ever published! The problem is that White Teeth was such an engaging and funny book that On Beauty does pale in comparison.
The main problem is that the story meanders in and out of the lives of the five family members without any narrative drive. There is no compelling reason to keep turning the pages - there are no real shocks or twists that aren't telegraphed and it kind of just blows itself out at the end. Some characters are move believable than others - Kiki (the mother) is a sympathetic character who you grow to like and Howard (the father) whilst being foolish still feels realistic.
However, the younger characters are flimsy - Levi is the rebel connecting with his roots, Jerome a nerdy Christian and Zora a zealous academic. They are not rounded or well-explained and I didn't particularly care what happened to them.
There are themes fighting to get out (black professor accused of being racist against his own race by white professor; middle-class black teenager aspiring to 'ghetto' life; as well as issues of mixed marriage, infidelity, mortality and the futility of academic life) but they never quite make it to any meaningful conclusion.
All this could probably have been forgiven if there were more laughs on the way but there are only a few moments of genuine humour.
on 16 April 2010
read this as one of my book club selections, and having heard good things about the writer Zadie Smith I was genuinely looking forward to reading it as business (the club) and the added pleasure of just reading. I did not like this book at all, too many pointless characters who add nothing to the narrative; and a picture of academia as a place populated by boors, philanderers and snobs.
Despite 440 pages, this is an underwritten novel, most of the time it is bogged down in minutiae. Ms Smith, like the Zora character in the book ( a self portrait perhaps? ) is nowhere near as clever or talented as she thinks she is.