On Beauty – Zadie Smith

I tried to read N-W few months ago and failed miserably, I just couldn’t get into the rhythm of this book, which surprised me because I remembered reading On Beauty years ago and loving it. That is why during one of my visits home I decided to take On Beauty with me to see if my reaction will change. It did, I still loved the book, but I’m sure I noticed and related to different things this time round, than I did during my first reading.

The book is about a year in the life of the Belsey family. Howard is an art history scholar, specialising in Rembrandt and dead set on demystifying Rembrandt’s myth as a genius. Kiki, his wife, is a nurse, is deeply hurt by Howard’s affair when we meet her. They have three children: Jerome, a believing christian (a fact that Howard find extremely unnerving), Zora, an egocentric perfectionist and Levi, a teenager trying to find his way and a group he can identify with. Throughout the year we can see how the family was affected by Howard’s affair, but also how in many aspects it is just one part of their life, the children have more important things on their mind and also Howard and Kiki don’t seem ready to resolve the situation in any final way.

The book shows with a tinge of irony a middle class liberal family, as well as academic environment, that is shaken when a conservative appears among them. Smith shows a conflict of values, but she is not deadly serious about it, she allows her characters to be hypocrites, because they are human. I felt that she really loved her characters with all their flaws and ugly secrets and because of that we get to like them too, exactly as they are in all their human imperfection. Smith portrays the conflict of values, but also an evolution of a relationship and the process of growing up, of children becoming their own self, independent from their parents. It seems everyone in the book feels a bit lonely and is doing everything they can to get away from this feeling, it is a book about the need to be with someone, with other people, the need to connect. I found this human aspect the most important, but she also writes about art, race and politics.

The prose is flowing and reads great, effortless. I always admired American writers for their ability to write books that read well, but touch on the big topics, as opposed to many European writers who seem to think that if they are writing ‘literature’ it has to be painful to read, because it is so serious and requires complicated and inaccessible form. Smith proves me wrong, in this book she manages to achieve exactly what I always admired in American writers, accessibility without simplification, she does not compromise on meaning, but is able to deliver it in an interesting plot, beautiful prose and characters we can relate to. This is exactly what I am looking for in literature.

I don’t think I’ll ever go back to N-W, but I would definitely like to try White Teeth. Have you read it? Did you like it? Have you read other books by Smith?

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @ vkphotospace

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19 thoughts on “On Beauty – Zadie Smith

  1. I remember that I really liked White Teeth even though I can barely remember anything specific about it! I’m reading her upcoming essay collection right now and it’s fantastic, and exactly what you describe so well about her writing – accessible and meaningful yet without being either overcomplicated or simplified. Great review!

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  2. I really enjoyed On Beauty and it made me re-read Howard’s End, too. I liked White Teeth a lot and also The Autograph man, but N-W just didn’t appeal (I read it had animal cruelty, which put me off). Swing Time is on my radar but not my TBR as yet.

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  3. I’ve read all of Smith’s stuff except NW – for whatever reason, it just didn’t appeal. Have wondered about an On Beauty re-read, particularly after Swing Time last year (which I was mixed about – some bits were exceptional, other bits meh).

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  4. Great review of this. I just read it recently for the Literary Wives group and loved it. I find reactions to Smith’s books are all over the place, so I’m curious to see how I find the next one I decide to read!

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    1. Thank you! I have mixed feelings about her as well. N-W is a total no go for me, On Beauty is a winner and I just started White Teeth, which I am enjoying a lot so far, so a mixed bag. I’m still wonderng whether to get Swing Time or try to get my hands on The Autograph Man.

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