On Beauty (Review)

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On Beauty
Zadie Smith, 2005
445 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2007

Somewhere in the middle of this book, a character wonders "was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything?"

She hits on the problem readers may encounter: it's hard at first to feel "genuinely attached" to this book—because none of the characters seem to love anything or anyone, least of all themselves. Ironically, that question became the tipping point for me. From then on it was impossible to put On Beauty down. As it turns out the characters are far more compelling than first realized. They are, in fact, "genuinely attached" to everyone and everything—intensely, sublimely human. And at every turn another insight, description, or idea surprises with revelations about our own state of humanness. Finally, there's Zadie Smith's wickedly brilliant humor.

The story revolves around two families, academic rivals, who become deeply entwined with one another over the span of a year. The fall-out from their tangled relationships comprises the primary plot. The book fairly bulges with characters, relationships, and ideas—about politics, class, race, family, authenticity, and beauty.

On Beauty is Smith’s homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). Right from it’s opening line (even down to the protagonist’s first name), structurally and thematically, her book mirrors its forbear.

My recommendation is to read On Beauty—after you've read Howards End  because you’ll gain a greater sense of what Smith is attempting. You’ll enjoy the game and Smith’s sly humor, but also her serious examination of what, as individuals and a society, we truly value—and what we claim to value. Caution: this is not necessarily an easy read, but it is rewarding.

See our Reading Guide for On Beauty.

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