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'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.
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.
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.