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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.
- 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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