On Beauty

Title: On Beauty
Author: Zadie Smith
Pages: 464
Publisher: Penguin (2005)
Rating: 3 stars

In Wellington, the fictional New England town just outside of Boston, a mixed race family struggles with inter- and intra-racial prejudice, religious and political differences, and marital turmoil.

Howard, a white British Art-History Professor, and Kiki, a African-American from Florida, are happily married for 30 years before Howard cheats with a fellow professor.

To avoid the fighting, their oldest son, Jerome, moves in with Howard’s academic rival, Monty Kipps and his family. He plans to marry Victoria, Kipp’s beautiful daughter. Bull-headed Howard goes to England to stop the marriage, but the Kippses beat him to it–and he ends up completely embarrassing himself.

The Kippses move to Wellington, and Monty gets an appointment at the same university that Howard works for. Their rivalry-based on conflicting political views-deepens severely. Monty wants to abolish affirmative action and hold conservative meetings and discussions. Howard claims that Monty wants to stunt the advancement of black people. Monty attacks his liberal politics as close-minded.

Howard is close-minded and self-centered. He is completely oblivious to his son’s heartache; of Kiki’s budding friendship with the idiosyncratic Mrs. Kipps; of his daughter’s, Zora, desperate attempts to please him; and his son’s, Levi, involvement with Hatian refugees.

Instead of begging incessantly for his wife’s forgiveness and trying to repair the gash he made in their marriage, he cheats on her again. With a student. Howard’s blatant disregard for others, especially those he claims to love, is nauseating. He’s hypocritical, borderline racist, and has an inflated sense of his own intelligence and academic prowess.

No one in this book is very likeable except maybe Kiki, but you just want to be like “you like this jerk-off, really?” Levi is tolerable and his desire to be “black” is amusing. Zora is a naive, feminist student who is academically proficient but creatively bereft; unfortunately, she’s just like her father. Jerome is a devastated love-struck puppy who turns to religion for guidance, and faces ridicule from his atheist family.

Smith’s writing is imaginative and unconsciously funny, mostly in the absurd situations characters get themselves into. However, I occasionally found her language a bit pedantic and cluttered with unnecessarily difficult words (keep a dictionary close by!), like she’s compensating for something (like maybe being a young, mixed race, female writer??).

Who is Zadie Smith?
Zadie Smith is a 36-year-old British writer and On Beauty is her third novel. Impressed yet? Well, she has also won awards and critical acclaim for both her first novel White Teeth (2000), which she wrote at 24, and On Beauty. Her second novel The Autograph Man (2002) was commercially successful, but the critics were disappointed.

About Natalie Ramm

I read a lot, y'all.
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3 Responses to On Beauty

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