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On Beauty - Zadie Smith

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Author: Zadie Smith / Genre: Fiction

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    3 Reviews
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      06.11.2010 22:58
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      Worth a read

      'On Beauty' is written by Zadie Smith, also author of the famous 'White Teeth'. I have not actually read 'White Teeth' or any other novel by Zadie Smith however. I picked up 'On Beauty' a few years ago from a bookstore, but having re-read it recently I thought I would write a review on it.

      The story is set mainly in New England, US and briefly in London, UK. It centres around two separate families, of whom the fathers - Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps - are both rather prominent academics in the field of art history, and also heavily in competition with one another. And it is on this foundation that Zadie Smith weaves a tale that takes us through the ups and downs of family life, the pain and confusion that family disasters bring and she manages to make the reader question what is right and whether it is ever really as simple as being right or wrong.

      For me, the best thing about this book was how each and every single character in this book seemed to be a 'real' person behind their name and identity. The characters were thus in no way two dimensional, each character, both central and supporting, had their own set of emotions, feelings, and all were very believable. This definitely made this book more engaging.

      The storyline was somewhat simple. It focused on two families, more so on the Belseys and the problems that affect them, more than twenty years in to their marriage. It touches (but does not focus) on some of the issues that might affect an interracial marriage and often tackled them in a light-hearted and humorous way. It also deals interestingly with how children can be affected by the way that adults in a family behave - this aspect of the book was explored particularly well especially as each character seemed to have an important part to play and their own unique identity.

      I would only criticise the length and the ending - it was a little too long at 443 pages. I found myself getting a little impatient towards the end as I felt it was a bit drawn out. Not only that, but I found the ending itself a little bit cheesy and a little bit complicated too. I just didn't totally get it and had to re-read the last couple of pages only to find that I still didn't like it that much!

      Overall however, it was worth reading and I would recommend it, perhaps as a holiday read. If I could, I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

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        30.06.2007 18:39
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        Familial problems in the world of Academia.

        I’m an ardent reader of contemporary British and American fiction, I’m not focussed on any specific author or subject and normally read what comes my way, but recently have decided to stay away for some time from 1) Campus Novels, i.e., novels set in the world of Academia as I’m fed up with authors showing off what they know or have researched and 2) novels dealing with midlife crisis as I feel I’m persecuted by the topic at the moment in real life (two colleagues) as well as in literature (every other novel).

        Imagine my shock when I found out that Zadie Smith’s novel ‘On Beauty’ is set in a New England university town and one of the main protagonists has a midlife crisis. Shock, horror! I didn’t throw the book into the bin, though, but read it up to the end because I was on hols in Italy and didn’t have much alternative reading matter with me.

        The main characters are the members of two families, Professor Montague Kipps, his wife, 19-year-old daughter Victoria and twenty-something Michael, Negroes (all the black characters in the novel refer to each other and themselves as ‘Negroes’) from the Caribbean living in London and Professor Howard Belsey, a white Londoner, his wife Kiki, a black woman from Florida and their children Levi, 16, Zora, 19, and Jeremy, 22, living in New England.

        The latter family occupys more room in the novel and are dealt with in a more detailed way, the destinies of the two families are intertwined, though. The men, both professors in the Humanities, hate each other’s guts, there isn’t one opinion they agree on, their main issue is how to interpret Rembrandt’s paintings. The other members of the families have various relationships with each other ranging from neighbourly friendship to sexual relationship.

        The novel starts when Kiki has just found out that Howard has betrayed her, she’s deeply hurt, of course, but tries to see things in perspective, what is a long and happy marriage against a one-night stand with an unknown woman? It’s only during the party celebrating their 30th anniversary that she learns that the ‘one-night’ stand with an ‘unknown woman’ was really a long affair with a fellow professor and friend of the family.

        This woman, a poet and professor of a poetry writing course, becomes the centre of a sub-plot, she allows non-students she finds gifted to take part which enrages the conservative elements of the university whose leader is Montague Kipps - he’s been invited over from England as a guest professor and has brought his family with him. One of his pet hates is affirmative action which he considers an insult to his people. Zora Belsey who’s in her father’s class on Rembrandt (as is Victoria Kipps) and also in Prof. Meredith’s poetry writing course is his outspoken opponent. So, besides being connected privately, the members of the two families also meet professionally.

        To my surprise the depiction of the world of Academia didn’t anger or bore me, Ms Smith didn’t feel the urge to dig too deep into an academic subject and use the novel to show off her knowledge. We get some insight into Rembrandt’s paintings but don’t get the feeling we’ve become art historians when we‘ve finished reading. The inner life of the university is presented in a slightly ironic way, the irony is created by letting intellectuals behave just like every other simpleton when it comes to jealousy, favours, love and hate. The clash between the eager freshmen’s expectations and the boredom of the professors who’ve said the same things for decades is even quite funny.

        The characters are well drawn, they’re round, they are what they are because of their past and they unfold and develop while we’re with them, I have no problems imagining them as real people. For example Levie Belsey, I have no experience of black urban teenagers, neither British nor American ones, and their way of talking. A blurb praises the author for her ‘pitch-perfect dialogues’, I have no reason to doubt that it’s genuine. I’d have probs with a youngster like Levie, wannabee cool teenagers are no match for me, I win against them any time, but the rare specimens who’re genuinely cool through and through, dyed-in-the-wool hoodies, who can never be touched positively or negatively, drive me up the wall. Hats off to Ms Smith for creating characters that still linger in my mind finishing the novel!

        Now to the topic midlife crisis, have I changed my mind here, too? No, I haven’t, it still bores me stiff but I have to accept it in this novel as it is vital for the plot, however, I’d like to implore all contemporary authors to avoid it like the plague in future, it’s worn out and sucked dry, please think of other topics to get your story going! Another complaint: the novel contains two elaborate descriptions of sexual encounters, I’m not a great fan of this in general but when I notice that a sex scene isn’t necessary for the plot but included simply to attract readers according to the motto ‘sex sells’, then I’m miffed. Yet, I must concede that Howard’s and Kiki’s endeavour has some morbid fascination what with Kiki weighing 250 pounds. “Howard took both his hands and put them under his wife‘s cataclysmic breasts.” and “She lifted (!) her belly . . . “

        My overall verdict: On Beauty is a well constructed novel with wonderful characters, intelligently written with profound insight into human nature and dealing with some interesting subjects, I didn’t even mind that the book has more than 400 pages! I like it more than Smith’s debut novel ‘White Teeth’ (I fell out of reading ‘The Autograph Man’ after about one quarter, don’t remember why). Four stars from me because of what I’ve already complained about and the fact that I haven’t understood the poem ‘On Beauty’ included in the text and don’t know why its title was chosen as the title for the book.

        ---

        Penguin Fiction
        443 pages
        First published in 2005
        Cover price 7.99 GBP

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          08.12.2005 17:43
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          Not quite eveything it should be...

          Zadie Smith's third novel centres on a mixed-race, mixed-nationality family growing up in the affluent white suburbia of Wellington. It opens with emails between a father and son on different continents, mirroring the opening of EM Forster's 'Howard's End' - a literary classic which Smith pays homage to throughout. This seems to be a very trendy thing to do these days - Will Self attempted the same with his 'Dorian Gray'. Are our modern story tellers so unsure of themselves that they need to piggyback on the established classics? Is it meant to engender the reader who sees the link with a feeling of insider knowledge, and so transfer their feelings for the classic to the new? Or it is just supposed to a non-strings attached retelling of a classic story? I can't decide where I stand on this. I love it when classic books and plays are adapted into modern settings for films, for example. But to use it as a template for your own book? Not sure. As a device it can prove clumsy and laboured if the author tries to stick to it too rigidly. Certain subtle allusions can make for magnificent writing. In this instance I think Smith sits somewhere in between. The book is essentially good, and a worthwhile read despite its flawed streak.

          But, enough rant and back to the meat and bones of the book.

          Howard Belsey is a middle aged academic with a problem. HIs wife of thirty years is mad at him because he's slept with someone else. His children are growing up and have no time to hold back their own ambitions for their father. And his glittering career has never shaped up the way he wanted - his masterpiece remains unwritten and his rivals tear him to pieces in the press. As the book opens, his eldest son is delcaring his love for the daughter of his rival, Monty Kipps. This dalliance never comes to anything, but seems to be the catalyst that keeps throwing the two families into each other's path. And as the truth of Howard's affair comes into the open, the webs get messier and the ride just a little bit bumpy.

          That, essentially, is the story. It meanders throughout, with threads not only Howard, but his wife Kiki and each of their three children. Their lives are played out on the picture-postcard background of Wellington college, and their manners and obsessions never feel quite real. It's all very easy to paint academics as social-inepts with different views of the world, but somehow the dynamics here don't rinf quite true.

          Like the two novels that have come before it, On Beauty deals neatly with issues of race and gender - never pandering to political correctness. Some characters seem to wear a stereotype as a sort of shield, a distraction, but Smith is adept at showing us the humanity of everyone. Kiki is the best drawn character - full of life and beating with the unspoken hurt Howard has caused her. Levi too is well written - but the two older children are a little flat.

          As a way to pass the time on the train, in the bath, On Beauty is a good read. It has had very mixed reviews - but although such accolades rarely mean much, it is worth remembering that it reached the Booker shortlist this year, so it can't all be bad. And it isn't. It is flawed in places where characters don't seem to gel, or the writing seerms bored - filling space. But overall it is a very good third novel. When her forst novel, White Teeth, was so good it is easy to be disappointed by the follow ups (Autograph Man was pretty dire). But let On Beauty stand alone from what has gone before and it is a good piece of contemporary writing. Nothing in it will astound your senses or intellect - but you won't die of boredom either.

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        • Product Details

          Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering Professor at Wellington 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, and 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. 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.