I have previously received PR products from Penguin.
CW: Inappropriate sexual relations between a college student and teacher (not discussed in the review).
This review contains some spoilers, so read at your own discretion! As a literary contemporary, though, the focus is definitely more on character than plot, so there aren’t any ‘plot twists’ as such.
It took me far too long to read Zadie Smith. I heard about her a long time ago, I think in relation to White Teeth. Today, though I’m reviewing On Beauty, which was given to me as a birthday present in 2018 (thank you Sophie!). On Beauty is the story of a mixed race family in America, struggling with coming-of-age, infidelity, race, and class. The father of the family, Howard, is a white man, an academic at a liberal arts college. The mother, Kiki, is a Black woman, who works in a hospital. Their children are Jerome, Zora, and Levi. The story opens with Jerome in England, working as intern for Monty Kipps, a black, conservative academic, and Howard’s rival. The novel is also loosely based on Howard’s End by E.M Forster, which I have to admit I haven’t read, so I can’t comment on the similarities between the two (beyond the obvious connection of the name Howard).
The setup of the novel alone makes for a very interesting approach to clashing cultures. This was manifested in particularly interesting ways for me in the three children of the principal family, the Belseys. While the oldest, Jerome, turns to Christianity, and Zora is fighting for academic prowess whilst also embodying many of the stereotypes of the American college student, the youngest, Levi, is the one that is the most focused on returning to what he sees as his roots: street culture, rap and hip-hop music. The striking differences between the three siblings were really interesting to consider as an effect of being one of the only black families in their affluent area. Levi, on the one hand, tries to denounce his middle class background, pretending he lives elsewhere and favouring campaigning for Haitian rights over schoolwork, while Zora throws herself into academia, arguing her way into an elite poetry class, arguing against some of the faculty’s opposition to ‘discretionaries’ (the teacher of the poetry class is known for scouting talent and admitting non-college students into her class, which Monty Kipps in particular is opposed to). The clashing cultural dynamics become stronger throughout the book, when it is revealed that Howard’s affair was with a white friend of the family. As a result, the marital relationship becomes increasingly strained throughout the book, with Kiki striking up an unlikely friendship with the wife of Monty Kipps after the Kippses moves to their city.
As someone who really likes character driven books, I am not opposed to a slow-paced book, which this one definitely is. I enjoyed the opportunity to take some time to really see the characters develop. It is a very reflective book, focusing on familial tensions, as well as the race and class identity of the family, so the slow pacing really allowed for a deep dive into these themes. I was particularly drawn to Zora’s character, perhaps because we are both of a similar age, very driven to excel in academia, and to be honest, I wish I was as brave as Zora, who is very persistent and determined to make a change. Her drive is one of the things that really kept me hooked throughout the book. The whole Belsey family are really interesting to read about though, as are the Kipps. Carlene Kipps, Monty’s wife and Kiki’s friend, is a very complicated character who I would have loved to have seen more of. Really, all the women in this book are really interesting to read, and all very different. Victoria Kipps, or Vee, is perhaps the least likeable, but still a fascinating character.
As a winner of the Women’s Prize for fiction, it’s no wonder that the women of On Beauty are among some of the most interesting, well-written women I’ve ever read. It’s also no wonder that Zadie Smith’s prose generally is absolutely amazing. Her prose flows beautifully, even between the wildly different worlds the members of the Belsey family inhabit throughout the book. The writing remains beautiful without ever obscuring the plot or characters, perfectly balancing the line between function and form. I have Swing Time on my bookshelf and I am really looking forward to reading more by Zadie Smith.
Overall, On Beauty is a study of marriage, infidelity, race, class, coming-of-age, America, liberalism, and love. The characters are flawed, and their flaws are often the focal point of the book. Yet, despite all the ugliness, the flaws and betrayals, there is beauty in this book.
This review also posted on GoodReads, and now I also post reviews on The StoryGraph!