On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Where to start with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty? I had mixed feeling about the novel before I started it as I have read two of Smith’s other novels – White Teeth, which I loved so much and N-W which sadly I was not impressed with.
As Smith does so well in her other novels, On Beauty is centred around the lives of two warring families. The Belseys who are liberalists, husband Howard is a white Englishman living in Wellington with his black, American wife Kiki and their three children Jerome, Levi and Zora. The Kippses – Montague ‘Monty’, Carlene and their children Michael and Victoria are much more conservative with their views.
Monty and Howard both work at the same university but have long been at war because of their opposing views on politics, theories and everything in between. Monty has even published a book on Rembrandt which Howard was going to publish.
The novel opens with Jerome announcing to his father, Howard that he wishes to marry Victoria. Howard is distraught at the prospect and quickly tries to intercept their romance.
The Belsey children are all trying to find something to believe in in contrast to their liberalist father. Jerome delves into Christianity. Zora is determined to get onto a poetry course run by the woman who her father had an affair with and then makes it her life’s work to get the uber talented Carl on the same course. And then there’s Levi an anti-capitalist who quits his job when he is asked to work at Christmas and then sells designer good on the cheap with a Haitian gang he meets.
Levi’s relationship with the Haitian men is his ultimate downfall. His mother, Kiki and Carlene Kipps become friends much to the shock of the families however when Mrs Kipps suddenly dies her family find a painting which she left to Kiki. Refusing to believe his wife would do such a thing Monty decides to ignore his deceased wife’s wishes. However Levi ends up stealing the painting when Monty places it in his work office as he believes Monty bought it on the cheap from some Haitians when it is actually worth a lot of money.
Although dissimilar in almost every aspect of their lives, Howard and Monty are both lost men. Both have affairs, both lose their wives and both are so stubborn that they can’t see their world falling apart. Howard has an affair with family friend and colleague Claire and then disturbingly enters into a relationship with Victoria Kipps. Monty also sleeps with one of his students. Howard and Monty’s feud comes to a head when in a college meeting the former wants to read all of Kippses’ lecture notes to make sure he is not being homophobic.
Smith pits the educated against the non-educated. Throughout a lot of the book Kiki is made to feel inferior as a hospital administrator in comparison to her educated children and college professor husband. However out of all of them she is one who has more education in general life as everyone around her makes mistakes and unfortunately their mistakes affect her. There is also a sub plot of whether Carl should be a part of a class as he is working class and uneducated in the typical sense yet has a wonderful way with words. Should your background ultimately determine whether you should attend university?
It took me until a third of the way through to get into the novel. I then read the final 150 pages in an afternoon. As with all of Smith’s novels On Beauty is littered with messages and theories. I really enjoyed it and it made me wish I was back at uni. It’s by no means a light read and will definitely get you thinking.