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On Beauty

by Zadie Smith

Book Club Recommendations eBooks of the Month Modern and Contemporary Fiction Sharing Diverse Voices

LoveReading View on On Beauty


Shortlisted for the Best of the Orange Best 2010 by the Orange Prize Youth Panel.


Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2006.
This review is provided by

Fans of WHITE TEETH  may be a bit disappointed with Zadie Smith’s latest novel. ON BEAUTY  is not such a rollicking good read as her first book but what it lacks in pace it makes up for in characterisation and depth.  The novel lays out its credentials from the first sentence: ‘One may as well begin with Jerome’s emails to his father.’ and goes on to draw much of its narrative from the plot of E M Forster’s HOWARD’S END. Smith’s story revolves, as does Forster’s, around two families who, although from a similar strata of society, have opposing political and moral viewpoints. Set mainly at Wellington, a fictitious Ivy League university, ON BEAUTY explores the rivalry between two art-historians: Howard Belsey – English, inclusive, liberal– and the ultra conservative, Christian, Monty Kipps. Despite being African American, Kipps refers to ‘the coloured man’ and wages a campaign on the campus against affirmative action. Inevitably, the two families get involved and the ensuing tensions provide great potential for high drama as well as comic situations. Some episodes are very funny indeed. Zadie Smith is very good at human relationships, family dynamics specifically, and some of her scenes are painfully convincing.

By referring to Howard’s End, the author creates parallels and counterpoints between Edwardian England and the US east coast of the early twenty first century. Although, whereas Forster’s novel ends with the symbolic death of Leonard Blast under a pile of books, Howard’s ‘end’ in ON BEAUTY  is not only a hugely optimistic redemption of his character but an affirmation of the value of love and beauty.

This homage to Forster does beg comparison with someone who was a master of economy in his writing. In just a few spare subtle sentences he could illustrate the British class system in all its iniquity and complexity and it makes Smith seem a bit clunky and heavy-handed by contrast. That said, ON BEAUTY  is a very accomplished novel, a good read and provides plenty to consider about love, fidelity, identity and the nature of beauty.

The Lovereading view...

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2006. Set on both sides of the Atlantic, award-winning Zadie Smith's third novel, On Beauty, 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.

Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.


On Beauty Synopsis

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering Professor at Wellington, a New England Liberal 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 oldest son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps.  Increasingly, 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, then an unexpected legacy set in motion a chain of events which sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions that 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 are the really beautiful things in life – and how far will you go to get them?
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.

On Beauty Press Reviews

'Smith demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that's street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time. A writer of remarkable powers'
The New York Times

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All versions of this book

ISBN: 9780141019451
Publication date: 06/07/2006
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9780241142936
Publication date: 13/09/2005
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Format: Hardback

Book Information

ISBN: 9780141019451
Publication date: 6th July 2006
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Format: Paperback
Pagination: 464 pages
Genres: Book Club Recommendations, eBook Favourites, Modern and Contemporary Fiction, Diverse Voices,
Categories: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945),

About Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975, and continues to live both there and in New York, where she teaches on the Creative Writing programme at NYU.White Teeth was first published in 2000 and won the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread Prize for a First Novel, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the WH Smith Book Award for New Talent, the Frankfurt eBook Award for Best Fiction Work Originally Published in 2000 and both the Commonwealth Writers First Book Award and Overall Commonwealth Writers Prize.Zadie Smith's other novels are The Autograph Man and On Beauty, which ...

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