Book info

On Beauty (2006)

On Beauty (2006)
Author
Rating
3.63 of 5 Votes: 2
ISBN
0143037749 (ISBN13: 9780143037743)
languge
English
publisher
penguin books
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On Beauty (2006)
On Beauty (2006)

About book: The impulse to gush inarticulately about this book is very overwhelming, but to do so simply to get it out of my system is to do it an injustice. The second impulse I have is to try to revisit my University years and invoke the language of all those fuddy-duddy critical theorists (or, to go easier on my own poor brain, my professors) in order to disect a book about academia. This is much easier to resist, as the more difficult path of the two, though I do want to say right now that, like most of my reviews, this will be rambling, emotion-based, and any attempts to be critical will probably fall short of really getting to the nub of this wonderful book. There, that's my disclaimer, so don't expect this to help you write an essay on it! Apparently this is a modern version of E.M. Forster's Howard's End, which I've never read, though I have seen the movie a few times and I found it quite depressing. But a friend did recommend that I read Howard's End first, which I didn't do, and I don't think it's necessary. On Beauty is about the Belseys and the Kipps and the somewhat run-of-the-mill feuding between the two families. Howard Belsey, a white, British, snobby in a liberal-arts kind of way, academic, married Kiki, an African-American who inherited a gorgeous old house in the better part of a town called Wellington, near Boston. They have three children: Jerome, a born-again Christian; Zora, a stubborn, persistent academic-in-the-making; and Levi, a teenager who pretends to be from the Hood and speaks Gangsta.The story follows this family, for the most part, over the course of a couple of years as affairs come to light, university politics take over, friendships are formed and broken, and paintings are stolen.The other family, the Kipps', is ruled over in a totalitarian way by Monty Kipps, another academic, black, British, snobby in a conservative way, with the complete opposite views from liberal-arts Howard. His wife, Carlene, is a kind and gentle soul who believes she lives for love, for her family, and not for herself - she encapsulates all the old-world traditions of what a wife should be and sets the bar very, very high. Their children, Michael and Victoria, are well-bred and attractive. Michael is a familiar character, just like his father and a bit scary too. Victoria is a beauty who deflowers Jerome and later has an affair with Howard (of course, her brother still believes she's a virgin). All the characters have a pretty high opinion about themselves which don't really match their real life existence.Politics, racial tensions and gender issues play an important part in this book - which is why, apart from the university setting, you feel the expectation to critically analyse it, to match its cleverness, but since it's been a number of years since I've had to do anything of the kind, I'm not going to bother trying. Yes, this book is smarter than me, Zadie Smith is smarter than me, and a better writer - though, to be fair, it's never a good idea to compare writers or writing styles, but it's a persistent human flaw to compare ourselves to others, and does us little good.Wit, irony and quotable lines abound, and while the characters have been called "unlikeable", the Belseys come off better than the Kipps'. Kiki especially is a lovely character, her large body praised as beautiful, and she too says "I gave up my life for you" to Howard - she is not the opposite of Carlene, but more of a realistic, contemporary version - or not version, that robs her of her self, but you know what I mean. The family dynamics are very believable, not at all depressing, nor black-and-white. No one character is presented as being completely dispicable (except perhaps Monty Kipps), but the Belseys are a complex bunch. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, their infuriating habits and nicer side. Howard, arguably the main character, is given some background - mother dying when he was young, unable to communicate with his father who didn't even want him to go to uni - but its not presented as some kind of excuse for his behaviour. None of them are excusable, they simply are. I think most readers would see similarities between the Belseys and their own families, not in likenesses, but in the sibling fights and moments of closeness and generosity, the natural flow of language, the underlying understandings based on years and years of knowing each other, close contact, prior history.This is what Zadie Smith has excelled at: presenting humans naturally, realistically, without being in the slightest way boring, forced, pushy or mundane. The dialogue itself is a joy to read, a true triumph at writing how we actually speak without it sounding forced and tiresome. The twists and turns in conversation, the breaks and pauses, the short-cuts, the jumps, they're all there, but presented so well that it reads smoothly. Even Levi's ridiculous "gangsta" speak, and his cringe-worthy conversations with young black men who really are from the poorer areas, and refugees from Haiti, are instead quite beautiful. Levi is a surprisingly strong, sympathetic character, and a book just about him could easily be written. He encapsulates an entire generation, both black and white, of political ignorance and innocence, of a search for a feeling of belonging and identity. It is through this character that international politics - the situation in Haiti and class divisions - is explored, but explored as a character in itself, an aspect of numerous characters. For there isn't a strong sense of world events in this book, of a world outside the two families so hopelessly entangled, but through them you can see a wider world is there, peeked at as most of us do, in little asides and glances, not really dealt with, largely ignored, denied. Howard, let me go back to Howard, since he is one of the only protagonists in the book. At one point, he remembers how Kiki wants him to put aside his academic-speak and use her personal-speak at home, and how much he hates that. Howard, a delight in mockery, cannot separate the two, and is a true academic. There are countless classic quotes in this book, but one scene was especially typical: they are at the park for a Mozart concert, during which Zora, naturally, has her discman on and is listening to a professor "carefully guide her through the movements". When they get up to leave, she accidentally takes someone else's discman, a young black man called Carl, and their conversation at the gates is superb. There is so much more I could say about this book, but that would take up way too much space. On the negative side - since I know I'm often blinded to flaws in books I enjoy - I don't really have any comments. The only thing I can think of, and this is pretty is weak, is that while Smith uses British English when talking from the POV of a British character, like Howard, she switches almost seamlessly to Americanised English for the other characters - not just in their dialogue but in the narrative as well - only, sometimes I think she slips here, and the two "languages" get all messed up. That said, perhaps it's deliberate, a metaphor, or a side-effect of the characters being a bit of both. I don't know. This book, perhaps because its author is British, connected to me. I don't think it could have been written by an American to the same success. Beneath it all, there's something very British about it all. This could be because Howard's voice is the most visited, and some of the other characters seem more like caricatures - a-ha!! have found a possible weakness!! - but the self-deprecating mockery and irony is not something you find in many American texts, if any. It was in A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian as well, and it is prevalent in British TV shows and movies, which I grew up on, thanks to the good ol' ABC, so perhaps that's why I found this book so comfortable and ... familiar, even though it's not my world. Another possible weakness - wow, I'm really on a roll here! - is that Smith takes on perhaps too much. Although I don't personally think so, and I love the insight into the academic world (academic politics really put me off being a post-grad, not to mention the disappointment I felt at finding out how they turn on each other), it is a bit crowded with issues. For me, On Beauty is like a vivid tapestry that, from the back of the room, is a cognizent whole, but up close the larger picture is taken up with numerous tiny details which would take a lifetime to study and comprehend. As a lover of jigsaw puzzles and, when I was a kid, Where's Wally books, I enjoy this, and I think she made it work. Other people might feel overwhelmed, or pissed-off at the hoity-toity-ness of the characters, who can be pretty infuriating. But their flaws are intrinsic to their nature, and I love that while drama happens, it's not presented in a melodrammatic way - or, as my mum would say, it's not "self-indulgent crap". And before I get ten different people all recommending her first book, White Teeth, let me quickly say: I have it, I will read it when I get a chance, don't you worry! And to them I will say: Please, read this one too. It's, well, it's simply wonderful, not to mention funny.

When I say I am not a people person, I mean I can find five reasons to hate someone, anyone, within ten minutes of meeting them in real life. As consequence of this and the desire to not let overwhelming anger ruin my life, I am always putting myself in the other's place, years of which have both calmed me down and sharpened my analysis to the quick. However much I initially dislike you, I will always, always, always respect you, and if you're not a complete and utter asshole and/or hypocrite who never seriously considers what others have to say, I will reconcile myself with you in short order. The same goes for personas in books, which is why the whole concept of "likable" characters makes me laugh. If I factored that into my evaluation of literature, I'd be left with very few successes.Despite what many of these reviews complain about, most of these characters are not assholes. Hypocrites, yes, but with a realness with which neither they nor the author may be condemned for. One of them is indeed a very typical asshole, but in such a fully explicated way that he is wielded as a veritable scythe through the ivory tower insipidity that is academia. This straight white male is a professor, a critic, a derider of custom and slayer of sentiment, so liberal in politics and so solipsistic in existence, able to get by in a world that encourages education without empathy at every turn in order to churn out glorified hipsters in the highest echelons of college campuses all across the US. In his eyes, nothing is sacred except for his dick, far more emblematic of a flawed society spewing out the same shit different days than any fault of the author, and which would hardly prove for a uniquely inspiring narrative had Smith not populated his world with characters that called him out on it at every turn. This includes the much objectified woman of his desires, who despite never having a share of that third person point of view is nothing less than fully and heartbreakingly human. Now that takes true writerly talent.Now, I loved Howards End, I did. However, the ending was too clean, too circumspect, too full of its own glorious aspirations to really ponder the implications of demographics on personal relations, and ultimately in great need of satirization. Teaching that book to students today will give you exuberant know nothings with nary a thought as to the twisting of privilege in the smallest facet of daily life, a truth fended off every second of every hour with empty courtesy, gentrified fortresses, and the avoidance of certain subjects. Politics, religion, pay check. Beware of the other side of the fence, less you find out how much and how so you use and are used. There's no success there, neither your money nor your life.Liberalism tries. As Smith displays in full, liberalism tries, but is easily co-opted without complete understanding, or even the willingness to understand, for it is one thing to condemn racism and sexism and everything else and quite another to view one's life through the paradigm forever on. It is tiring, it is hard, and quite frankly who has time for all that when there's a 40+ hour work week and kids and taxes and pull up your bootstraps 'cause no one's ready or willing to coddle you no matter how much your nature and nurture screwed you over long before you were born. Never mind your beautiful passion for what society considers wrong for all the wrong reasons. Never mind the judgment based on white heternormative masculinity, women deepening their voice in speaking classes, black men fending off the fearful stares with constant reassurance, both expending energy that could have been wonderfully devoted elsewhere if not for their body and soul.In the end, hate people if you will. Hate them, but always grant them reason to live. Always grant them reason to exist in your eyes, regardless of what promotions they have the power to make possible, what length of your time they are worth based on the connections you hypothesize out of the tone of their voice and color of their skin, how much you can squeeze out of them before going back to that circle habituated to whatever power you have as a youth/mother/daughter/father/son you call family. You have the right to living your life without actively seeking out danger, but do not avoid a chance to communicate out of guilt, or shame, or entitlement. You were compromised coming into this world by both privilege and oppression; you will gain nothing by splintering off in your own little bell jar of social justice. If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.-Zora Neale HurstonHumans are social creatures. There is, despite the hypocritical politickings, something beautiful worth living for in the halls of thought. Rome wasn't built in a day. In other words, go listen to some rap, or whatever other medium you have closed yourself off from without ever really knowing why or considering what drives your fellow human beings who so rapturously partake of it. Talk is cheap, silence is death, and we might as well like or dislike the tomato while explaining why; something may come of it yet.
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Reviews
Carolyn Francis
By the end of this book I just wanted to hang out with Zadie Smith in a bar and talk about politics and men and religion over dirty martinis. She is devastatingly witty and articulate and insightful. At its core On Beauty is a homage to E. M. Forster’s Howards End, with the bare branches of its plot uprooted and replanted on the East Coast of the US where a mixed race family, the Belsey’s, live out their personal and professional sagas. In the midst of a highly comic novel Zadie Smith manages to grapple with the significant cultural, political, religious and generational issues of the day. The liberal warrior Howard Belsey and his arch-nemesis, the neo-conservative Mory Kipps, could easily have become caricatures, but Smith’s even-handedness manages to highlight the paucity of fundamentalisms of all kinds, while still allowing the characters their paradoxes and oddities (the gay minister who is a friend of the annoyingly pompous and preachy Kipps serves as a fine reminder that most of us have lives far more complex than any labels convey.) The children rebel, the husbands stray, the careers flourish and falter, the wives become unlikely friends, the children fall in and out of love and struggle with identity and race and faith. For all that is great about it, I can't escape the pervasive memory of Adichie's brilliant Americanah, which sits next to this one on my shelf and is perhaps a finer and more nuanced (and therefore 5 star) work.
CJ
i loved, loved white teeth. i did not like on beauty. i'm afraid zadie smith wasn't able to capture american-speak very well. kiki has southern roots and, at times, she supposedly "went florida" in her speech and mannerism, but this was something smith simply stated rather than demonstrated. i could excuse levi's not entirey successful attempts at urban dialogue given his suburban/academic family background, but not carl's. maybe i'm extra critical b/c, in a past life, i spent some time in the spoken word scene, but carl was a shell of an idea rather than an authentic, believable character. whatisname's assistant, the other southerner, really showed some of smith's weakness in writing regional/cultural dialects. one "accented" word in a character's sentence - e.g. "pahpoint" - w/o keen attention to how other more common words should be spoken does not make for very convincing dialogue. i was so distracted by the characters' inauthentic language that i didn't have the patience/interest to hone in on the themes about beauty...which seemed a bit shallow anyhow. ok, the fat character is sympathetic and fun and smart and good-looking despite her rolls...the thin beautiful character is too often taken merely at face value and people don't make much of an effort to get to know her beyond that...but the reader can't get to know her beyond that b/c smith also isn't interested in her other than for her looks.the good stuff: the father felt genuine and gave an honest look at academic/intellectual pursuits when stagnant. his thoughts about his family and marriage also felt real and were interesting to me, especially b/c...well b/c i'm not a man and he seemed to offer a real "man's" (albeit an older man's) point of view. i thought his musings on his relationship w/ kiki were more thoroughly drawn out than kiki's, interesting since smith is herself a woman. kudos to her for being able to represent the husband so well. (though i wonder if a male reader would disagree about smith's success with that.)
Jennifer
While I did not absolutely hate this book, I really disliked it from the beginning and kept reading in hopes it would redeem itself. Alas, it did not. In fact, there really isn't many redeeming qualities in the story or the characters whatsoever. The book was written with some style, but as far as the storyline and the characters go, the book should have been called On Destruction...which is, as it seems to me to be, where every character was bent on going in their own oblivion. I did not have any sympathy for or empathy with any of them and that I think is a huge fault in the development. Furthermore, the colloquialisms in some of the dialogues were off; the scenes as well as the characters fell a little flat.
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