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R&R 054 | On Beauty

Zadie Smith
On Beauty
First published in: 2005
This edition: Penguin Books, 2006
ISBN: 9780141026664
Cover design information N/A
Additional info: I have not yet read, but own the book White Teeth by Zadie Smith as well.

R&R 054 | On Beauty

A reincarnation of E.M. Forster's Howard's End (which I have not read), On Beauty is a story about different people and clashing opinions, mainly: the feud between the Belseys and the Kippses and how that rivalry affects members of both families.

Howard Belsey is a Caucasian British liberal professor married to an African-American nurse, Kiki. They live near Boston with their three children. There's Jerome, raised an atheist but finding his way to religion. Then comes Zora, a clever feminist who takes herself far too seriously. And the youngest would be Levi, who likes to pretend he's an African-American kid from the 'hood instead of an African-American kid who lives in a neighbourhood of wealth and academia. As if taking care of those three isn't challenging enough, Howard and Kiki's marriage is on edge ever since Howard's affair, leaving Kiki feeling insecure about her physical appearance.

As Kiki and Howard continue to drift apart, someone else is suddenly too close for comfort: Howard's rival, the conservative professor Monty Kipps, is asked to teach at Wellington, where Howard teaches as well, and thus Kipps moves himself and his family to the same town. Well, uh oh. In comes a lot more trouble.

Zadie Smith made sure she had plenty of themes to with; from politics to marital problems to identity crises… On Beauty has enough food for thought.

…maybe too much. In such a way that she never quite managed to go deep enough into one subject, but remained floating on the surface of a lot of different themes.

A lot was going on with some characters; Howard's affair, Levi's struggle with his class, Zora and her poetry class, etc. At one point, Smith includes a few pages with the PoV of a new character entirely, only to have her leave the book as quickly as she appeared. Other characters just seemed forgotten. Jerome, a prominent character in the beginning, leaves for most of the book, only to meagerly return in the end. I would have liked to read more about Kiki, the only character I sympathized with. (The rest was rather unlikeable, especially Zora. And Vee. Ugh.) I also hoped to read more from the Kippses point of view, but most of it was from the Belseys.

The characters Smith has developed in her story, she has developed well. Zadie Smith is quite skilled at creating these different, clashing personalities – and making it all work together. Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to see more of these clashing personalities in dialogue together. There was plenty of dialogue, don't get me wrong, but not enough between the most interesting people. (Not between Howard the atheist & Jerome the Christian. Barely between Howard & Monty, though I can see that the rivalry is implied enough. And Howard & Kiki… there wasn't enough.) It made the dialogue that did exist seem a bit tedious at times because it's repetitive, lingering on what had been said and done already. The story moves slowly as a result, and the characters that have been well developed were underutilized.

Despite feeling that it could have consisted of more, On Beauty was far from boring. I really enjoyed reading it; there was something very real about this book. I maintained interested in these people. Humor and drama are quite balanced; the book is forgiving and doesn't weigh heavily on your heart.

But I think I wanted the book to have a heaviness to it. Its themes could have shook me up, but didn't. On Beauty was entertaining as I actually sat down to read it, but the book itself left me feeling dissatisfied.

R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009

From now on I'm posting the photos directly from my flickr stream.

Karin Elizabeth
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