On Beauty (Smith)

On Beauty 
Zadie Smith, 2005
Penguin Group USA
445 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143037743


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?

Set on both sides of the Atlantic, Zadie Smith's third novel is a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people's deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—October 27, 1975
Where—Hampstead, England, UK
Education—B.A., Cambridge University
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in New York City, New York, and London, England


Early Life
Zadie Smith was born as Sadie Smith in the northwest London borough of Brent—a largely working-class area—to a Jamaican mother, Yvonne Bailey, and a British father, Harvey Smith. Her mother had grown up in Jamaica and emigrated to Britain in 1969. Zadie has a half-sister, a half-brother, and two younger brothers, one of whom is the rapper and stand-up comedian Doc Brown and the other is rapper Luc Skyz. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager.

As a child Smith was fond of tap dancing and as a teenager considered a musical theater career. When she was 14, she changed her name to "Zadie."

Education
Smith attended Cambridge University where she earned money as a jazz singer and, at first, wanted to become a journalist. Despite those earlier ambitions, literature emerged as her principal interest. While an undergrad, she published a number of short stories in a collection of new student writing called The Mays Anthology. These attracted the attention of a publisher, who offered her a contract for her first novel. Smith decided to contact a literary agent and was taken on by A.P. Watt.

Career
White Teeth was introduced to the publishing world in 1997—long before completion. The partial manuscript fueled an auction among different houses for the publishing rights, but it wasn't until her final year at Cambridge that she finished the novel. When published in 2000, White Teeth became an immediate bestseller, praised internationally and pocketing a number of awards. In 2002, Channel 4 adapted the novel for television.

In interviews Smith reported that the hype surrounding her first novel had caused her to suffer a short spell of writer's block. Nevertheless, her second novel, The Autograph Man, came out in 2002. It, too, achieved commercial success although the critical response was not as positive as it had been to White Teeth.

Following publication of The Autograph Man, Smith visited the United States as a 2002–2003 a Fellow at Harvard University. While there, she started work on a book of essays, some portions of which are included in a later essay collection titled Changing My Mind, published in 2009.

Her third novel, On Beauty came out in 2005. Set largely in and around Greater Boston, it attracted acclaim and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It won the 2006 Orange Prize.

Following a brief spell teaching fiction at Columbia University, Smith joined New York University as a tenured professor of fiction in 2010. That same year, The UK's Guardian newspaper asked Smith for her "10 rules for writing fiction." Among them, she offered up this:

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

During 2011, Smith served as the New Books editor at Harper's magazine, and in 2012, she published NW, her fourth novel, this one set in the Kilburn area of north-west London (the title refers to the area's postal code, NW6). NW was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Swing Time, Smith's fifth novel, was released in 2016, again to solid acclaim. The novel, a coming-of-age story, follows the fate of two girls of color who became fast friends through their mutual love of dance.

Personal Life
Smith met Nick Laird at Cambridge University, and the couple married in 2004. They have two children, Kathrine and Harvey, and are based in New York City and Queen's Park, London.

Awards and recognition
White Teeth (2000): Whitbread First Novel Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award.
The Autograph Man (2002): Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize
On Beauty (2005): Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award, Orange Prize
NW (2012): shortlisted for Ondaatje Prize and Women's Prize for Fiction
♦ General: Granta′s Best of Young British Novelists, 2003, 2013; Welt-Literaturpreis, 2016.

(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/31/2016.)



Book Reviews
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.
A LitLovers LitPick (Sept. '08)


On Beauty opens out to provide the reader with a splashy, irreverent look at campus politics, political correctness and the ways different generations regard race and class, but its real focus is on personal relationships — what E. M. Forster regarded as "the real life, forever and ever." Like Forster, 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


White Teeth brought Zadie Smith worldwide acclaim when she was in her early twenties, leading some people to fear she might be one of those brilliant one-shot hotshots. But after The Autograph Man and now On Beauty, it's evident that Smith is a writer for the long haul, an artist whose books we will look forward to every few years, a real and deeply satisfying novelist. E.M. Forster would be proud.
Michael Dirda - The Washington Post


(Audio version.) This is a superb novel, a many-cultured Middlemarch, but it's a rough one for an actor. James juggles a large cast of Brits and Yanks, middle- and working-class white, African-American, West Indian and African men and women, as well as street teens, wannabe street teens and don't-wannabe street teens. James has a beautiful, deep voice that at first seems antithetical to Smith's ship of fools, but he enhances the humor and pathos with vocal understatement. He helps give characters their rightful place in the saga. The parade of characters swirl around two antagonistic Rembrandt scholars in a Massachusetts college town. Howard Belsey is a self-absorbed, working-class British white man married to African-American Kiki and father to three cafe-au-lait children. Monty Kipps is a West Indian stuffed-shirt married to the generous Carlene, with a gorgeous daughter, Veronica. The book is funny and infuriating, crammed with multiple shades of love and lust, midlife and teenlife crises. Class, race and political conflicts are generally an integral part of a story that occasionally strays from its center. The theme of beauty as counterpoint to individual, family, cultural and social foibles and failures ribbons through the novel and wraps it up, perhaps to say that Beauty is, finally, the only Truth.
Publishers Weekly


Smith was highly praised for her debut novel, White Teeth, and it probably set high expectations for this third novel, but she may have tried to be too faithful to the book's inspiration, E.M. Forster's Howard's End. As much as Smith updates the class war with modern references to big-box stores, iPods, politics, and such, the academically based battle between the Kipps and the Belseys is more frozen in Forster's drawing room sensibilities than its contemporary urban settings. The characters are too strained and generally unsympathetic to engage one in their troubles or dreams. Yet Smith's descriptions of some of the personas, particularly the opposing matriarchs and their younger children, suggest a looser story that could have been a lot more fun. The work doesn't live up to the hype, although Peter Francis James's reading is appropriately earnest. Disappointing. —Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY
Library Journal


An academic comedy of multicultural manners finds Smith recapturing the sparkle of White Teeth (2000). Following her sophomore slump with The Autograph Man (2002), the British author returns to biting, frequently hilarious form with a novel that concerns two professors who are intellectual enemies but whose families become intertwined. Radical theorist Howard Belsey, a British art historian married to the African-American Kiki, detests the cultural conservatism of Monty Kipps, a Caribbean scholar based in England. Kipps apparently has the best of their rivalry, having raised his profile with a well-received book on Rembrandt that stands in stark contrast to Belsey's attempts to complete a counter-argument manuscript. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, Belsey's son becomes engaged to Kipps's irresistibly beautiful daughter, Kipps accepts an invitation to become guest lecturer at the Massachusetts college where Belsey is struggling for tenure and the wives of the two discover that they are soul mates. As Smith details the generation-spanning interactions of various minorities within a predominantly white, liberal community, she finds shades of meaning in shades of skin tone, probing the prickly issues of affirmative action, race relations and cultural imperialism while skewering the political correctness that masks emotional honesty. As the author acknowledges in an afterword, her story's structure pays homage to E.M. Forster's Howards End, recasting the epistolary beginning of that book as a series of e-mails, while incorporating all sorts of contemporary cultural allusions to hip-hop, academic theory and the political climate in the wake of 9/11. Though much of the plot concerns the hypocrisies and occasional buffoonery of the professors, along with the romantic entanglements and social crises of their offspring, the heart and soul of the novel is Kiki Belsey, who must decide whether to continue to nurture a husband who doesn't deserve her. While some characters receive scant development, the personality that shines through the narrative most strongly is that of Smith. In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty's only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third novel, is both a tribute to and a riff on English novelist E. M. Forster’s Howards End, updated as an exploration of the politics of contemporary life. In a book as bold and funny as it is precise and insightful, Smith applies her dazzling powers of description to a middle-class family in the United States. The Belseys are based at a fictional college called Wellington, where earthy African American Kiki, abstract—and English—Howard, and their three searching children seem the picture of modern liberal success. Yet in spite of their outward harmony and privilege, all are eagerly pursuing private agendas. Jerome, the eldest child, is alienated from his secular and liberal family by his conversion to Christianity and attraction to conservatism. Zora, the only daughter, aggressively follows her father’s path, attending Wellington where she adopts a veneer of sophistication and maturity that disguises her insecure heart. The youngest, Levi, longing for an authentic “blackness,” is absorbed into a countercultural identity that belies his class status.

2. The novel unfolds through a series of unexpected disruptions to the Belsey’s idyllic life. First comes the arrival in town of the Kippses, led by Monty, Howard’s bitter rival in theory and politics. Kipps and his family are, on paper, the Belseys’ opposites: the polished men epitomize a conservative ethic while the decorative women are expected to follow traditional gender roles. Yet the mothers, Carlene and Kiki, form a bond as wives of willful men and as lovers of beauty, a bond that disturbs the balance of distrust between the two families. Additional troubles add to the fray: Howard and Kiki’s marriage is in danger; Jerome falls deeply in love with Monty Kipps’s daughter Victoria; an educated young spoken-word artist enters the Wellington world and Zora’s life; recent immigrants from Haiti transform Levi; and at Wellington Monty Kipps and Howard are on a collision course that threatens Howard’s hard-won status. In these conflicts Smith considers the impact of lies, the humiliation of unrequited love, and the battle between the will of the mind and the desires of the body as each member of the Belsey family questions their previous assumptions about family, race, and morality.

3. On Beauty is a hilarious, scathing, and emotionally profound novel of human aspiration and failure, an unfailingly perceptive portrait of a struggling marriage, and an empathetic depiction of adolescent struggle. It is also an outsider’s witty look at American cultural life floundering under the weight of political and cultural divisions. Will Howard and Kiki’s marriage survive? How will the feud between Howard and Monty be resolved? Which of the Belsey children are poised to find a true and lasting identity, and which are teetering toward heartbreak? Who will find their true place, and will it be found in family or home, in nationality, abstract theory, or religion? This is Zadie Smith on beauty—exploring who possesses it and who longs for it, who embraces it and who denies it, who exploits it and who is destroyed by it—in a novel both entertaining and wise that consolidates her position as one of the most spellbinding writers of her generation.

4. At the start of the novel, Howard’s betrayal of Kiki has already set the family reeling off its orbit. What are the effects of his infidelity on the children? How do they react and whom do they side with? He and Kiki interpret the meaning of his act differently? Can you understand both sides? Why do you think Howard is tempted toward sexual betrayal? Where do you imagine their relationship is heading at the end?

5. The Belsey children are all searching for an adult identity. Jerome has become religious, Zora is imitating her father, and Levi is in search of what he believes will be an authentic ethnicity. What characteristics do the three children share, and how are they like their parents? Which of their current activities do you see as “phases” in their lives, and which do you think are meant to suggest what they will harden into as adults? Which of them do you identify with the most?

6. The Belseys’ house, beautifully evoked by Smith as the calm center around which the whirlwind of family life turns, embodies the family’s comfortable middle class stature. What does the home represent, both practically and emotionally, to various members of the family? Think about some of the other living spaces in the book—the Kippses’ or Howard’s father’s—and compare them to the Belseys’. What do you think a good house can provide?

7. Kiki, the most grounded of the characters on the surface, is also struggling to find a place. Her husband and children have embarked on paths different from her own, and she feels alienated by Wellington and Howard’s colleagues there. How do people treat Kiki, and what do both her race and size have to do with this? She says at one point that she gave up her life for Howard; what does she mean by this? Do you think she is more empowered over the course of the novel, or less?

8. Howard’s academic work is a deconstruction of traditional ideas of genius; he is attempting a book on Rembrandt that is meant to deflate the myth of his originality. His friend Erskine says that “only a man who had such pleasure at home could be ... so against pleasure in his work.” Why do you think that Howard feels so antagonistic toward representational beauty in art? What does this suggest about the rest of his life? Do you find his ideas interesting or persuasive? Or do you think he is missing something crucial about art or life? What does his visit to his father add to your understanding of him?

9. Smith quotes Elaine Scarry saying that “a university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.” How would you describe Wellington University; as precious, or something else? What about it as an educational institution is appealing, for the characters or for you? Which of its practices or people does Smith seem critical of? Consider how this college might be representative of both virtues and failings in American culture. How might a university be precious—or beautiful—and how might this be threatened?

10. The opposition between liberal and conservative seems to be encapsulated in the competing ethics of the Belseys and the Kippses. Yet, for the children as well as for the adults, the lived reality turns out to be somewhat more complex. Consider the various members of the two families. How would you describe each one’s politics or belief system? How do they struggle to fully act on those beliefs in their daily lives? Does anyone really live true to their ideals?

11. Women’s body issues recur throughout the novel; as Kiki says, “It was in the air ... this hatred of women and their bodies.” Kiki finds herself too fat, while fading Carlene is too thin; eighteen-year old Vee wildly explores her newly blossomed figure, while the poet Clare seems infantilized in her childlike body. Are their bodies at all accurate representations of who they are? How do they struggle with, or come to terms with, their physical selves? How does someone like Zora, with dueling models Kiki and Clare, feel about her body? Does anyone have a healthy (and sustainable) physical regard for themselves? Why or why not?

12. The brief friendship between Carlene and Kiki creates a strange but profound connection between the two families, despite the dueling patriarchs. What does Carlene provide for Kiki that her own family does not, and vice versa? Return to their few brief encounters and examine the effect that they have on each other. How does the subject of art and beauty enter into their conversations and thoughts? Do these small moments explain to you why Carlene makes her bequest to Kiki? What is she communicating through that gesture?

13. Some people have described Smith’s writing as satire—that is, work that exposes human folly, offering it up for ridicule. Do you think her depictions of characters are satirical? Some more than others? Think over times in the novel when you feel that characters have become ridiculous, or when they seem more like caricatures than real people. Which characters or moments in the book transcend such stereotype? Are there characters who are both ridiculous and real?

14. All of the character’s lives change over the course of the novel—most dramatically, neither the Belseys nor the Kippses retain the same family structure. Whose life is transformed for the better by these changes and who do you feel are still struggling? Who, in the end, finds peace, and by what means? Try to describe this peace or any other satisfactions you think the characters have attained. What are some conclusions that are arrived at concerning art, home, or love? Think about Howard and Kiki’s divergent paths, or the possible futures of Zora, Jerome, or Vee. Whose position would you most like to be in?

15. The title On Beauty refers to many things: Howard’s theories about art; Kiki’s physical grandeur; the attractiveness of youths like Carl and Victoria; paintings by Rembrandt and other artists; Levi’s sense of the organic flow of street life; Zora’s frustration at her lack of sex appeal; Jerome’s sense of religious transcendence. All of these characters express radically different ideas about the meaning and role of beauty in their lives. What do you think it means, in this novel’s terms, to embrace beauty? What does it mean to be without it? What, to Smith and to you, are truly beautiful things?
(Questions issued by publishers.)

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