four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
By: 
Zadie Smith
user_rating: 
0

A-OnBeautyIn a plot that mirrors E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), two radically different families collide. Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar at a college near Boston, is a liberal Englishman married to Kiki, an African-American. As their three children strive to carve individual identities, the eldest, Jerome, falls in love with Victoria. Trouble is, she’s the daughter of Howard’s archenemy, the conservative Trinidadian Monty Kipps. As the two families inevitably come together, they must address their different intellectual values, cultural heritages, and political beliefs. Of course, sex, identity crises, and emotions also come into play. In the end, might there be "such a shelter in each other"—or will it be all out cultural warfare?
Penguin. 446 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594200637

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Her new novel is masterly on almost any level—impressive in its command of every register of English, never tiresome despite its length and astonishingly sympathetic to every sort of human frailty. . . . To this satirical, wise, and sexy book, the correct critical response should largely be either gratitude and admiration or a simple ‘Wow.’" Michael Dirda

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Zadie Smith spent a year guest lecturing at Harvard University in the wake of its own hullabaloo over how it treated its own campus workers. Not surprisingly, her latest novel . . . is a rollicking satire of the sacred pieties laid bare when a university confronts such an issue." John Freeman

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As she demonstrated in White Teeth, she possesses an ability to inhabit with equal ease the point of view of children, adolescents and the middle-aged, and in these pages she captures with pitch-perfect accuracy the street-smart banter of wanna-be rappers, the willfully pedantic language of academics, and the marital shorthand of long-time couples." Michiko Kakutani

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Some scenes in On Beauty have exact counterparts in Howards End. . . . At different points, many of the characters in On Beauty behave deplorably—yet Smith always sees them in the round, never letting you lose sight of what demons or delusions might be spurring them on, making their behavior make sense to them." Michael Upchurch

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is a big, garrulous, academic comedy posing as a domestic drama. Or the other way around, if you prefer: It’s a dead-serious piece of sprawling realism posing as a comic novel." Gail Caldwell

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"On Beauty is that rare comic novel about the divisive cultural politics of the new century likely to amuse readers on the right as much as those on the left. . . . For all the petty politics, domestic battles and cheesy adulteries of On Beauty, [Smith] never loses her own serious moral compass or forsakes her pursuit of the transcendent." Frank Rich

Critical Summary

Smith took a small hit with Autograph Man (2002), but On Beauty invokes her brilliant debut, White Teeth (2000). Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the novel owes aesthetic debts to Forster and Rembrandt (whom, ironically, Howard Belsey hates), but in her reinvention of Forster’s classic, she’s made the story all her own. Smith’s big-hearted, satirical look at cultural divisiveness astounded the critics; her excavation of ugly truths uncovered the beauty of human connection. A few minor complaints: Wellington College campus could be in "anywhere," America, though half the novel takes place in the author’s native London. Also, Smith introduces so many issues that not all come together. But her wonderful ear for dialogue, as well as her uncanny ability to inhabit characters from different walks of life, is truly extraordinary. "E.M. Forster would be proud" (Washington Post).

The Inspiration

Howards End | E. M. Forster (1910): When the vivacious, happy-go-lucky Margaret Schlegel meets the aristocratic Ruth Wilcox, they become lifelong friends. When Ruth dies, she leaves her family’s country house, Howards End, to Margaret. But the cool Wilcox family resents these last wishes. As Margaret’s sister and brother become more entwined with the Wilcoxes, chaos ensues. Then, to both families’ chagrin, Margaret marries the widower Henry Wilcox—and tests the true limits of love.