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On Beauty Paperback – 6 Jul 2006

3.2 out of 5 stars 137 customer reviews

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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: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (137 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 27,746 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Review

."..[A] thoroughly original tale about families and generational change, about race and multiculturalism in millennial America, about love and identity and the ways they are affected by the passage of time. Ms. Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice--at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between--and in these pages, she uses that voice to enormous effect, giving us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Oh happy day when a writer as gifted as Zadie Smith fulfills her early promise with a novel as accomplished, substantive and penetrating as On Beauty. It's a thing of beauty indeed. In tackling grown-up issues of marriage, adultery, race, class, liberalism and aesthetics, she thrillingly balances engaging ideas with equally engaging characters. As good as she is with big ideas, Smith is even stronger at capturing family dynamics, the heartbreak of broken trust as well as the lovely connections between siblings. --The Los Angeles Times Book Review



"In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty's only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone." --Kirkus Reviews



"Smith's specialty is her ability to render the new world, in its vibrant multiculturalism, with a kind of dancing, daring joy. . . . Her plots and people sing with life. . . . One of the best of the year, a splendid treat. " --Chicago Tribune



"On Beauty is a rollicking satire . . . a tremendously good read." --San Francisco Chronicle







..".[A] thoroughly original tale about families and generational change, about race and multiculturalism in millennial America, about love and identity and the ways they are affected by the passage of time. Ms. Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between and in these pages, she uses that voice to enormous effect, giving us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Oh happy day when a writer as gifted as Zadie Smith fulfills her early promise with a novel as accomplished, substantive and penetrating as On Beauty. It's a thing of beauty indeed. In tackling grown-up issues of marriage, adultery, race, class, liberalism and aesthetics, she thrillingly balances engaging ideas with equally engaging characters. As good as she is with big ideas, Smith is even stronger at capturing family dynamics, the heartbreak of broken trust as well as the lovely connections between siblings. The Los Angeles Times Book Review

"In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty's only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone." Kirkus Reviews

"Smith's specialty is her ability to render the new world, in its vibrant multiculturalism, with a kind of dancing, daring joy. . . . Her plots and people sing with life. . . . One of the best of the year, a splendid treat. " Chicago Tribune

"On Beauty is a rollicking satire . . . a tremendously good read." San Francisco Chronicle

" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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Format: Hardcover
I'm not trying to be controversial - maybe I just don't get it. Connect? If only. Smith has inevitably posited herself for comparison with E M Forster and, in comparison, this book falls short. Although there are some snatches of exquisite prose, I found the characters one-dimensional at best and caricatures at worst. Smith seems to be riffing on elements of her life experience - academia, youth, residence in the USA - rather than competently addressing overarching themes of race, culture, love and gender which bubble around in this melting pot of a story but don't come together to make a great novel this time. I have to say, however, I wasn't a big fan of Smith's first two works so I'm not sure how this qualifies me as a reviewer. Clearly popular opinion and Booker judges have found something else in the book so hopefully other readers will too.
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