On Beauty

This is a novel written by British author Zadie Smith. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the book, though I did have some high hopes based on the fact that it was shortlisted for the Man Book Prize award in 2005.

To be honest, the start of the novel didn’t impress me, but after patiently reading through the first 30%, I adjusted to the pace, began to like the style and became enthusiastic about the story. From then on, I went through the second half in a single sunny Sunday morning.

The entire story is carefully constructed and interesting, so I enjoyed the novel, and it wasn’t until after a few weeks that I realized I was still thinking about it. I liked the book because of its many details and intense action scenes, which lead to grave consequences in the novel’s revealing climax, while at the same time giving a feeling that in the end, the emotional involvement on the part of the main characters didn’t really change. The narrative unfolds not unlike a storm, during which everything would get thrown into the air, before it would settle back into a static position after the outbreak.

The story describe the academic life of two professors who happen to conduct research in the same field, thus becoming rivals. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps have solid families at the onset of the story, and this changes slightly by the end of the novel. The members of the two families get to know each other and rarely interact without tension, except for the wives who surprisingly become friends, even though they are described as opposite personalities.

The author likes to present characters in opposition to each other, and there is a counterpart in the story for almost every character. The interesting part for the reader, I guess, is to discover if the protagonists are really that different.

Howard and Monty are presented in the beginning as two completely different people: they have differing religious and political views, and come from different backgrounds. Howard is white and Monty is black. Monty has a successful career while Howard is struggling to write a long-awaited book. But though they seem different, they share similar weaknesses, and they both strive to surpass their troubled origins. It is revealed by the end of the novel that they are quite alike.

The story itself is complex and covers a multitude of ethnic, social, cultural and artistic subjects, while following the members of the Belsey family. The Belseys have their problems and each of them has something to deal with. Howard is the only white member of the family, therefore his children feel they haven’t been exposed enough to their African origins and culture. The children try to re-connect with their roots, while their father is concerned with his career, and their mother is faced with her husband’s infidelity, which leaves her questioning who she really is and what she really deserves in life.

The scenes I liked the most were those in which the characters reflect back upon themselves or their lives, and deal with their struggles. I would say the story focuses a lot on the psychological weight of family relationships. Reading words such as:

… a family doesn’t work anymore when everyone in it is more miserable than they would be if they were alone

You don’t have favorites among your children, but you do have allies.

This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust.

The friendship of other women hadn’t mattered to her in a long time. She’d never needed to think about it, having married her best friend.

A five-year gap between siblings is like a garden that needs constant attention. Even three months apart allows the weeds to grow up between you.

forces you to put your assumptions about family into perspective.

From time to time, I stumbled upon simple phrases that describe uplifting feelings:

He was having an odd parental rush, a blood surge that was also about blood and was presently hunting through Howard’s expansive intelligence to find words that would more effectively express something like don’t walk in front of the cars; take care and be good; don’t hurt or be hurt and don’t live in a way that makes you feel dead; don’t betray anybody or yourself; take care of what matters; please don’t and please remember.

One reason to read the novel again, is to get the chance to discover more notes like the one above, that I highlighted in On Beauty by Zadie Smith.

Because of the multitude of themes developed in the novel, it wasn’t easy for me to see a connection to the concept of beauty in the plot, but I guess it depends on the theme that the reader likes and focuses most on. After reflecting more on the title, I realized that a great deal of the narrative revolves around beauty: some characters are greatly concerned with their physical appearance, while others are praising their beauty.

There were many authors who have tried to describe a woman’s insecurities and reflective thoughts, but in my opinion, it is Zadie Smith who finally succeeded.

Hardcover book:

Kindle version:
On Beauty

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