Zadie Smith

"On Beauty"

(Reviewed by Nora Kathleen Reilly JUN 4, 2006)

“People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two lovers, but this too was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating.  Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel-before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets.  After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been…He did not consider if or how or why he loved them.  They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.”

Meet the Belsey children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. They are the children of Howard, a perennially un-tenured art history professor at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and Kiki, a "goddess of the everyday,” as one character puts it, and the heart of the Belsey family. And among many, many other things, On Beauty is their story.

Zadie Smith treats us to another somewhat raucous family drama with On Beauty, not unlike White Teeth in certain ways, her critically acclaimed debut novel for which she won the Whitbread Award in 2000.  From the very beginning of her career comparisons to Dickens have abounded, and for good reason; Zadie Smith can write our contemporary world unlike any other author today.  Like Dickens, the plots in Smith's novels (and subplots beneath subplots, for there are always several) are intricate and large, and some of the dialogue and cultural references may only be faintly recognizable to readers over a certain age.  What’s more, she seems to be attuned to every possible demographic in England and the United States and can write all of them with equal ability. 

On Beauty, Zadie Smith's third novel, is either her best yet or it's just my favorite so far.  It is funny, insightful, honest.  Smith seems to have hit a stride; the playfulness with the language is still there, she is still a master of dialogue and incredibly witty, but I found On Beauty to be a much smoother read than her previous two novels.  The format is stripped down and much simpler.  There is no textual collage like that in Autograph Man, and there isn’t so much back and forth between tenses and time periods as in White Teeth.  It is a straightforward third person narrative that settles you into the story right away and carries you along at an enjoyable pace to the very end. 

At the most basic level, On Beauty is the story of a husband and wife as they struggle to cope with the repercussions of marital infidelity and the subsequent breakdown of their otherwise close-knit family.  The book actually focuses on two families, the Belseys and the Kippses, although the Kippses play a much smaller part.  On paper, the make-up of these two families is almost identical.  The two husbands are both around the same age, both English, and both art history professors and Rembrandt scholars.  The wives, though markedly more dissimilar than their husbands, both remain uninvolved and somewhat uninterested in their husband’s world of academia.  The children of these two marriages are also around the same age, and each of their only daughters end up attending the same college (which is also the same college where both their fathers hold faculty positions but, believe me, it hasn't even begun to get complicated yet).  

But for as nicely as you would think these two families could play together, the Belseys and the Kippses are not friends, (well, at least, not at first), for the Kipps family is the Belsey's conservative, religious, and somewhat more uptight doppelganger. Each family has always been vaguely familiar with the other since Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps stand on opposing sides of the two issues that have consumed their academic careers: Rembrandt's genius (real, or just the result of centuries of speculation?) and affirmative action.  Because of the somewhat public aspect to their dispute, played out in lectures, faculty meetings, and art history textbooks, their two families have unwittingly been enlisted in the fight as well.

But the drama really begins when Jerome, the oldest Belsey whose sensitive nature and religious inclinations often lead him to butt heads with the rest of his family, takes an internship with Monty Kipps in London.  Jerome is so fond of the Kippses, and they of him, that he ends up living with them for the rest of the summer.  Jerome eventually falls in love with the Kipps girl, further confusing and infuriating his father, prompting an ill-fated overseas rescue mission to reclaim his son.  Thus a chain of events is set in motion that entangles the two families in a series of arguments, intimacies, and strange friendships that make up most of On Beauty’s plot.

Thrown in as well are several other plot lines and a host of characters, too numerous to name here.  But the strength of Zadie Smith's third novel lies not in its elaborate yet thoroughly entertaining plot line.  It is in the slower moments when she zeroes in on the relationships between brother and sister, mother and son, husband and wife that you finally begin to start thinking about why this novel might be titled "On Beauty." Smith's descriptions of the unique and often peculiar bond that exists between family members and the emotional debris left behind when that bond is blown apart is part of what makes this novel beautiful.  But, of course, there is always more to a Zadie Smith novel.  As in her previous two books, Smith manages to squeeze a significant amount of social commentary into the storyline.  Academia and its petty office politics are thrown under a harsh light, rap music takes on a different type of cultural importance as it makes its way into English class, and there is even time spent on Haiti’s political situation and the plight of Haitian immigrants in America. 

It is not only a testament to her skill as an author, but, surely, evidence of a profound insightfulness, that she is able to digest the world around her almost instantaneously and extract a complete, honest, and panoramic portrait of our culture; and, mind you, all within a plot so entertaining that its almost (almost) possible to forget that you actually might be learning something.

But the verdict has already been handed down, we know that Zadie Smith is a good writer; she has a great big handful of awards to prove it.  But if that’s not a good enough reason for you to read On Beauty, then how’s this: I promise you that you’ll laugh, and a lot, while reading this book, and that somewhere along the line you’ll learn something about someone (or something) that you didn’t understand before.  If you haven’t read On Beauty yet, or if you’re not familiar with any of Zadie Smith’s other books, it’s about time you found out what everyone’s been talking about. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 223 reviews


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About the Author:

Zadie SmithZadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975 to an English father and a Jamaican mother. She graduated from Cambridge in 1997 with a degree in English.

She won seven major literary awards for White Teeth, her debut novel published at age 24, including the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award, the 2000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book award. Her second novel, The Autograph Man won the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. In 2003 she was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 "Best of Young British Novelists." On Beauty made the shortlist for both the Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize.

Zadie Smith is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University.

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