“On Beauty” by Zadie Smith is on sale for $1.99 on Amazon now (Kindle edition)! I saw this on my daily bookbub email and had to let everyone know because “On Beauty” is one of my recent favorites, and Zadie Smith is one of my favorite authors. Read a summary and review of the book below.
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts 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: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. 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. Or the encore.
Then Jerome, Howard’s older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and 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. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you 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, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people’s deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.
“On Beauty” begins as a retelling of EM Forster’s “Howard’s End”, though it becomes a story of its own. It is about a family, the Belseys, who live in Massachusetts, where the father is a professor of Art History at “Wellington”, a fictional liberal arts institution that calls to mind schools like Amherst and Williams. At the novel’s start, Jerome Belsey writes home from London, where he has been interning for Monty Kipps, his father’s enemy and cultural/political opposite. Jerome has fallen head over heels for Monty Kipp’s daughter and claims they are getting married. This quickly falls apart, leaving Jerome completely heartbroken. The Kipps continue to cause trouble as the family moves to Massachusetts, and Monty becomes a professor at Wellington. Though Howard Belsey refuses to listen to the opinions of the Kipps, his wife and children find themselves drawn to the family. Kiki Belsey, Howard’s wife, befriends the aging Carlene Belsey, who gifts her a priceless object after her death. Kiki and Howard’s marriage becomes increasingly strained through differences in opinions and Howard’s infidelities. Kiki is black and Howard is white, and their children all deal with conflicting experiences of their own race. They do not entirely fit in at Wellington or with the local Haitian community.
On Beauty is about clashes and conflicts between cultures, races, political beliefs, classes, and couples. The characters in the novel are extremely complex, relatable, and interesting. On Beauty is hilariously funny, yet it also contains important commentary on race and culture.
I read this book in one day and subsequently recommended it to all of my friends. I couldn’t pass up a chance to recommend it to more people now that it’s $1.99.
(links are affiliate, but all opinions are my own)