On Beauty: Zadie Smith

Tessa: I just finished reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Usually before I post a review or comments about a book I go on line and read a few other reviews. Both Salon.com as well as The Observer wrote lengthy and glowing reviews so I’ll refrain from doing the same here. Needless to say this comes as no surprise as the book was both the winner of the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006 as well as shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005.

The book has been hailed as a brilliant homage to EM Forster’s Howard’s End for it’s study of contemporary upper class academic culture with all of its foibles and pretensions. Set mainly in New England but also in London On Beauty traverses the ups and downs of two long feuding families the Belsies and the Kipses.

Howard Belsey, ostensibly the lead character in the novel, is a British professor at a New England liberal arts college. His area of specialty is the deconstruction of the myth of Rembrandt’s genuis, an area if study that has made little impact on anyone outside his immediate circle. He is married to a wonderful black american woman called Kiki with whom he has three children.

His nemesis is Dr. Montague Kipps, a black conservative academic of caribbean descent who has earned his stripes in the British op-ed pages by writing against affirmative action, and seeks to deliver a series of lectures called Taking the Liberal Out of Liberal Arts.

Neither of these characters are particularly inpiring but what they do is serve as a cultural representation of two spectrums of contemporary, cultural and social thought. To that end the book does get you thinking about the issues and ideas related to this. For example, in a free country where freedom of speech is hailed do liberals in the interests of guarding against anti-hate have the right to curtail this very right.

Howard’s and Monte’s posturing on these topics as well as the nature in beauty in art leaves you wondering who cares? Really who does care about whether Rembrandt is hailed as a genious or decried as far less? And in the post September 11 landscape and the ensueing illegal war in Iraq and the almost constant nonsense that hails from the White House and more, who truly gives a crap?

So I guess that’s why it took me so long to read. Who cares about these people? As a measure for where we are culturally in our hallowed ‘educated’ communities I think Smith does a brilliant job of penning a very good satire.

The character that did touch me in the book was Kiki, Howard’s wife. She was from Wellington but not of Wellington which I actually read somewhere else but it rings true. She is not like anyone else there including her own shallow husband.  A large black woman, her kind of smarts hails from within and has much more to do with life knowledge and empathy than with book learning. I liked her and thought she was the story’s redeeming character.

For all of the reasons listed above I think the book is a good quick read but my next selection won’t be about deconstructing the dreadful, full of hot air ‘upper classes’.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “On Beauty: Zadie Smith

  1. I read On Beauty, and loved it.

    I think the idea that “who cares about these people with all the bad stuff happening in the world” could be said about just about anything. Who cares about Paris Hilton? Who cares about the newest Margaret Atwood book? Who cares about the latest Brad Pitt movie?

    I mean, really, why does any of that crap matter when the environment is going to hell? And I think to some degree you are supposed to feel that way about Howard Belsey. When I was in university, that is how I felt about most academics – who cares! What they go on and on about is generally pointless.

    But, I think pointless can be good. Not everything can be meaningful. Not everything can have deep signficance. Sometimes when I’m watching the news before work, if it is getting me down, I turn on cartoons. I don’t always want to be thinking about the heavy stuff. Sometimes I want a book that is fluff. Some days I want to debate pointless with Matthew about Macs v. PCs.

    I guess most of what we do is pointless. Basically life is a series of events and then we die. We just have to try to be the best people we can be while we are on the Earth. So, as much as I think it is great to care about the environment, wars, stupid governments, I also think it is good to give your brain a break and watch movies and read books.

  2. Oh, also, I saw all the characters as being flawed and unlikeable at times. Like life. I felt like I really new the Belseys. Not all families have fathers that are university professors, but there was something in there so typical of a family: all the complex relationships, the love and hate, seeing people who for they are and loving them anyway…..

    I just really enjoyed all that. (i’ll stop rambling now)

  3. Hey Nicole, This is kind of like having a Book Club! I didn’t dislike the book, and in fact, I thought it was really well written and quite accomplished. I guess I just wasn’t motivated by the characters. The only person I really liked was Karl, kind of, and Kiki. I was intrigued by Mrs. Kipps but then she disappeared. I guess the most interesting thing for me was the whole iss ue of black identity in the book and how being black, and blackness and what it really meant was so amorphous and really all about what other people think what black means. Thanks for your comments though, What are you reading now?

  4. Hi Tessa! It is sort of like having a book club. I love hearing other people’s opinions on book s I’ve read, especially when they differ so much from mine. It is always interesting how one person can see things one way, and I can see it completely differently.

    Well, I just finished last week, Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno. I think it was published by Askashic. It was pretty good – teenage boy, coming of age story. Sort of like a Nick Hornby book – very, very funny at times. Also dealt with racial issues.

    Next, for my book club, we are reading The Namesake. I haven’t picked it up yet. But I need to get on that.

    Also, I’m reading this collection of personal stories called Nobody’s Mother: Life Without Kids. My mom-in-law bought it for me for Christmas (i think her strange way of saying, I’m OK if you never have children), and I wasn’t sure I’d ever read it. But, I now find I’m truly enjoying it. It is a great reminder for me that their is a choice and I enjoy reading about these women and their different life experiences with no kids of their own. So, I’m finishing that off now.

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