On Beauty (Smith)

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

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