On Beauty Book Review – The Literary Edit

The bane of many bookworms’ lives is the ever-growing pile of books waiting to be read and the endless list of authors we know we should have but just don’t quite have -to-have- Read-only. For me there are many: I still have to read James Baldwin; I first read Agatha Christie in my thirties, I haven’t read Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston. The list goes on and on and on, so to speak. One such writer I’ve wanted to read for the donkey years is Zadie Smith – I’ve owned a number of her books over the years and have at least three of them in my Bondi apartment – and yet it was only after reading my podcast with Joanna Rakoff – Author of My Salinger Year – I finally got down to it. Joanna chose On Beauty as one of her Desert Island books and spoke about it with such verve and passion that I started it shortly after we finished our call.

About Beauty Book Review

First published in 2005, On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s third novel and is loosely based on Howards End (another book for the TBR stack). A book I knew I would instantly love, On Beauty follows the story of the Belsey and Kipps families and their increasingly different yet intertwined lives. While the Belsey family consists of the university professor Howard, a white Englishman; his African American wife Kiki; and their children Jerome, Zora and Levi – who live in a fictional Boston suburb; Monty Kipps – Howard’s professional archenemy – is a Trinidadian who lives in the UK with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael.

With a flawed cast of characters who are often unsympathetic – from the disgusting teenagers to the Philander academics, from the bourgeois professors to the spoiled rich children – a double backdrop of an American college town and the gloomy streets of London and consistently convincing texts, there was so much I loved about On Beauty. I loved the rich prose, I loved the complexities of family members and the subjects of science, race, heritage, poetry, art, and belonging, I loved the college campus setting and the literary references woven into the often improbable plot developments.

A rich and beautiful novel that is alive and well and chaotic and complex, it was undoubtedly worth the wait.

Finally, my favorite quote from On Beauty:

“Stop worrying about your identity and care about the people you care about, ideas you care about, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can walk on. Smart people make these decisions with their brains and hearts, and they make them alone. The world gives you no meaning. You have to make it sense … and decide what you want and need and need to do. It’s a tough, incredibly lonely, and complicated way of being in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you cannot live on slogans, dead ideas, clichés or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out. “

Zadie Smith

About Beauty by Zadie Smith Summary

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who dislikes Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a longtime professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He’s been married to Kiki for thirty years, an American who no longer looks like the sexy activist she once was. Their three children are passionate about going their own way: Levi seeks authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem anyone, and Jerome struggles to belong to a family of strict atheists. Given the oppressive excitement 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 older son, falls in love with Victoria, the stunning daughter of right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, waging a cultural and personal war against the backdrop of real wars that they hardly meet to register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set off a chain of events in which all parties are forced to re-examine the unspoken assumptions that underlie their lives. How do you choose the work you want to spend your life doing? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you say And what’s the beauty and how far are you going to go to get it?

Set on both sides of the Atlantic, Zadie Smith’s third novel is a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, the intersection of private and political, and an honest look at people’s delusions. It’s also very fun, as you’d expect.

Buy On Beauty at Bookshop.org, Book Depository, Waterstones, Amazon or Amazon AU.

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On Beauty by Zadie Smith is featured in this great Vogue Editors List of 31 books to read before you turn 30.

Zadie Smith Author Bio

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time as well as the two collections of essays Changing My Mind and Feel Free. Zadie was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002 and was listed as one of the top 20 young British novelists by Granta in 2003 and 2013. White Teeth has won several literary awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was nominated for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently Professor of Fiction at New York University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Other books by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith has written everything from essays to fiction and criticism, and her books include White Teeth, The Autograph Man, NW, Swing Time, and Feel Free.

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