Tuesday, September 15, 2015

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Published January 2005 by Penguin Publishing
Source: both my print and audio copies purchased from my local library book sale

Publisher's Summary:
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

My Thoughts:
You know that old adage "write what you know?" Here Smith has done just that then dropped it into her own version of E. M. Forster's Howard"s End. Drawing on her biracial heritage, Smith effortlessly blends British, island, and American sensibilities and quirks into her story.
“A carefully preserved English accent also upped the fear factor.” 
That same heritage also allows Smith to explore racial issues in a way that only biracial writers can safely get away with that, a way that allows her to not only educate both sides but to highlight the places in where our sensitivities can in our way. And, yeah, to poke fun at both sides. Like Forster. But in a very modern setting Forster could never have imagined.

It's something of a hallmark of this book that Smith is able to blend both the serious and the absurd about a number of themes including marriage, intellectualism, youth, family, passion, aging, gender and the ways we communicate with each other.
“Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful...and decide what you want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clich├ęs, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.”
Occasionally it seemed to get mired down in its sex scenes and sometimes I got frustrated with the narration on my audio book (I really have a problem with men trying to voice women and, to be fair, there was a large cast of characters with a very wide range of voices). Overall, though, I was really impressed with what Smith had to say about life and by her writing.


  1. This definitely sounds like it has potential and like an interesting read. I'm not sure it's for me though I do love the bit about a carefully preserved English accent. I definitely agree with men trying to voice women. I've very seldom found a narrator who can really do that well.

  2. I haven't read this yet, but I have it on my TBR shelf. I admit to being a bit intimidated by it after reading another review a couple years ago. You make it sound more accessible though. It sounds like a worthwhile book to read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this one.

  3. Interesting; not sure I ever knew WHAT this book was about only that the author has become quite celebrated. DO I have to know Howard's End to read? would it further the appreciation to know the prior book?

  4. I have two other books written by Zadie Smith and cannot wait to read them. She has always been on my must-read list. This one sounds amazing.

  5. I just received a copy of this one and am looking forward to reading it!