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First UK edition cover
|Publisher||Hamish Hamilton, London|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|LC Class||PR6069.M59 O5 2005b|
On Beauty is a 2005 novel by British author Zadie Smith. It takes its title from an essay by Elaine Scarry (On Beauty and Being Just). The story follows the lives of a mixed-race British/American family living in the United States. On Beauty addresses ethnic and cultural differences in both the USA and the UK, the nature of beauty, and the clash between liberal and conservative academic values. A short article in The Observer has described it as a "transatlantic comic saga".
On Beauty centres on the story of two families and their different, yet increasingly intertwined, lives. The Belsey family consists of university professor Howard, a white Englishman, his African-American wife Kiki, and their children Jerome, Zora and Levi, living in the fictional university town of Wellington, outside Boston. Howard's professional nemesis is Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian living in Britain with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael.
The Belsey family has always defined itself as liberal and atheist, and Howard in particular is furious when his son Jerome, a newly born-again Christian, goes to work as an intern with the ultra-conservative Christian Kipps family over his summer holidays. After a failed affair with Victoria Kipps, Jerome returns home. However, the families are brought into proximity again nine months later when the Kippses move to Wellington, and Monty begins work at the university.
Carlene and Kiki become friends despite the tensions between their families. Rivalry between Monty and Howard increases as Monty challenges the liberal attitudes of the university on issues such as affirmative action. His academic success also highlights Howard's inadequacies and failure to publish a long-awaited book. Meanwhile, the Belsey family is facing problems of its own, as they deal with the fallout of Howard's affair with his colleague and family friend Claire.
Zora and Levi both become friends with Carl, an African-American man of a poorer background than their own middle-class lifestyle. Zora uses him as a poster child for her campaign to allow talented non-students in university classes. For Levi, Carl is a source of identity, as a member of a more "authentic" black culture than Levi considers his own background to be.
The book is loosely based on Howards End by E. M. Forster, and has been described by Zadie Smith as an "homage" to Forster's novel. Parallels include the opening sections (Howards End begins with letters from Helen to her sister, On Beauty with emails from Jerome to his father), the bequeathing of a valuable item to a member of the other family (the Wilcox house Howards End is left by Ruth Wilcox to Margaret Schlegel; Carlene leaves Kiki a painting), and more broadly the idea of two families with very different ideas and values gradually becoming linked.
The setting of much of the novel, the fictitious Wellington College and surrounding community, contains many close parallels to the real Harvard University and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Smith wrote part of the novel as a fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute.
Smith gives herself a very brief Hitchcock-style cameo in the novel: the narrator (or, indirectly, Howard) describes her as a "feckless novelist", visiting fellow of the fictional Wellington faculty, as Smith was of Harvard's, who is quick to abandon a tedious meeting.
Themes and Motifs
The novel deals with the many different facets and expressions of black identity through various characters. The novel takes place in an upper class, predominantly white college town. This causes conflicts for many characters. Kiki, for example, feels very isolated as the wife of a white professor. She tells Howard that in Wellington, "[Her] whole life is white. [She doesn't] see any black folk unless they be cleaning" (pg 206). Kiki feels the pressure to conform to this community, but her clearly visible blackness prevents her from truly doing so. Similarly, Kiki and Howard's son Levi doesn't see blackness present in the academically elite society of Wellington. "To Levi, black folk were city folk," and his admiration and identification with the idea of inner city blackness leads him to change the way he speaks, and fosters an interest in rap music (pg 81). By contrast, the character of Monty rejects the notion that blackness cannot exist unchanged in the context of an elite university. He believes that the policy of Affirmative Action patronizes the black community. While Levi understands his black identity through the struggle with systematic oppression and resistance to assimilation, Howard's identity is seen more through the lens of his class loyalties.
We also see Kiki’s complex understanding of her blackness through her interactions with others. When Kiki speaks with the Haitian vendor she feels over sexualized because of her voluptuous figure, but she also feels distance from him because of he is Haitian and their class difference. In previous scenes Kiki’s only interactions with Haitians has been in a boss-employee context. When Kiki talks with Warren she feels like a comedic Aunt Jemima-like character, where her size becomes unattractive and she embodies a caretaker role when speaking with Warren.
As the novel's title would suggest, "On Beauty" deals with issues of physical appearance, particularly through the black female characters. Victoria and Kiki are foils in this regard. Kiki is a large, black woman, whose size and skin color make her feel out of place in Wellington. After Kiki discovers Howard's affair with Claire, she tells him that he humiliated her by sleeping with someone significantly smaller than her, to which Howard replies, "I married a slim black woman" (pg 207). This thinly veiled accusation demonstrates that Howard believes to an extent that Kiki's weight gain was the real reason for his infidelity. Howard also sleeps with Victoria Kipps, who unlike Claire, is black. However, Victoria is very different than Kiki. She is slender and yet still very curvy, and is incredibly beautiful. Many male characters are enraptured by her, including Howard's own son, Jerome. This difference in appearance between Kiki and Victoria demonstrates the consequences black women face when they are not deemed beautiful enough or do not conform closely enough to Eurocentric beauty standards.
Smith intersects issues of class and race throughout the novel in order to bring to light the relationship between the two. For example, Kiki’s race becomes an obstacle against her ability to fit in with the community and world surrounding her, one that is white, affluent, and educated. The eliteness of the academic world is directly tied to its whiteness, creating a clash between Kiki’s racial identity and class identity. Class directly ties into education and race, and this is reflected in the way that the characters of color interact with the predominantly white world that surrounds them. Levi struggles with his mixed race identity and blackness because of the primarily white world of academics that he lives in. Howard and Kiki’s family is a combination of stereotypically “white” attributes and those that are stereotypically “black,” including physical traits, creating complexities within the family that reflect the complexities within academia and the relationship it has with race and class.
- Frank Rich, "Zadie Smith's Culture Warriors" (review), The New York Times, 18 September 2005.
- "A Thing of Beauty?", a review of On Beauty in The Oxonian Review of Books
- Michiko Kakutani, "A Modern, Multicultural Makeover for Forster's Bourgeois Edwardians", The New York Times, 13 September 2005.
- "Dear Booker Committee", a discussion of On Beauty by Stephen Metcalf of Slate.com.
- Tew, Philip. "Zadie Smith’s On Beauty: Art and transatlantic antagonisms in the Anglo-American academy." Symbiosis 15 (2), 2011: 219- 236
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