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3.2 out of 5 stars
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3.2 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 3 February 2007
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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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
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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.
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on 10 October 2005
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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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.
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on 10 February 2007
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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on 26 October 2005
I haven't read her other two novels. I sort of avoided White Teeth because it was a 'trendy' read but I picked this up and found it satisfying intellectually and also a pretty good read. I cared about many of the characters in the book although didn't like them all - this may sound trite but to get something out of a novel you have to feel engaged with the characters in some way.
Also Zadie Smith has humour, something I wasn't expecting to get. The issues of race in the book were tackled with intelligence and insight and also from a variety of perspectives which was really refreshing. There was no 'woe is me' PCness to the book which was a huge relief, just a clear tackling of where each character stood or was trying to stand, in many cases imperfectly. It showed how people's politics personal and otherwise are fragile and constantly evolving.
I think it's flawed because sometimes the narrative thread and the perspectives of some of the characters slightly unravelled in places. Also I felt uncomfortable with the scenes directly lifted from Forster's Howards End, even though they were an honourable tribute, they didn't work for me, possibly because you could so clearly see where they came from.
This is an ambitious novel, well-written and well worth the time taken to read it and I would say that Zadie Smith's masterpiece is in the future but it is out there and on it's way.
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on 18 October 2006
I hadn't read anything else by Zadie Smith and am generally put off by hype surrounding books, but I was keen to read On Beauty after learning that it was Smith's homage to Howards End, one of my favourite books.

It was fun spotting the parallels between the two books, but On Beauty was highly enjoyable in its own right. I found it to be well-written, entertaining and a page-turner.

The characters were well-drawn, able to frustrate, depress, annoy, amuse and impress me, and I liked the contrast between the hypocrisy and jadedness of some of the older characters and the idealism of the Belsey children, each of whom seemed to be searching for an identity but in different places.

A moving and satisfying read.
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on 1 February 2007
I read this straight after finishing White Teeth and it was such a disappointment. The themes and characters are re-hashes of those in her earlier novel but not rendered as well; mixed race families and the culture clashes that follow, religion, unfaithfulness, intertwined family saga all feature in one form or another.

It fells like the author doesn't even like any of the characters so I'm unsure how the reader is supposed to care about them.

I felt the character of Zora was so full of self-loathing it could only be how Zadie Smith saw herself as a teenager, likewise Victoria is the girl she never was.

Apart from the mother, there is no one to route for in the book and its so devoid of compassion its almost insulting.

As other reviewers have mentioned, the dialogue is trite and unconvincing.
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