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On Beauty by Zadie Smith

on beauty

I think I was the only person in the world to dislike Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I read her debut when it first came out and I actively disliked it although I don’t remember exactly why I disliked it. Ever since then I’ve been meaning to give Smith another try. I picked up this book for our winter scavenger hunt since it fulfilled item #21: A book with no images on the cover. Here’s what I thought…

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
First Published in: 2005
Awards: Orange Prize for fiction, 2006
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by: Jen
Find it/buy it here:On Beauty

For some reason Zadie Smith and I just don’t seem to mesh well together. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this book overall but this should have been a book I loved. It has all the ingredients that would normally appeal to me: 1) Set in Massachusetts in an Ivy league type of community (I live in MA and am part of such a community); 2) interesting discussion of race and identity in the U.S.; 3) strong female characters; and 4) well-written. But for some reason, I didn’t love it.

On Beauty was published in 2005, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Award, made it onto quite a few “best of the year” lists and won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006. The novel tells the story of an two academic families: The Belseys and the Kipps. The Belseys are the primary focus of the book and much of the novel is focused on Howard Belsey.

The Belsey clan is an interracial family living in a University town in Massachusetts. Howard, the father is a white professor originally from England and is married to an Kiki, a strong African American woman. Together they have three adolescent and young adult children. The Belseys represent the liberal, academic family.

There’s a lot going on in the novel, making it hard to summarize in a way that does it justice. It’s a family saga replete with your standard literary family difficulties — affairs, raising kids, intimacy issues, and more. It’s also much more than a family saga in that it tackles politics, race, and gender identity.

It’s a smart novel, and brilliantly written so I’m not sure why I didn’t love it. I guess there’s just something about Smith’s style that I have a hard time truly loving. I’ve delayed writing this review for several weeks trying to analyze what it is that doesn’t appeal to me in her writing and I can’t come up with anything. I did think the ways in which she tackled racial and gender identity issues were very clever and overall I enjoyed the book. I did really dislike the main character, Howard. The Belseys were so dysfunctional and much of that due to Howard and his behavior. I appreciated that Smith didn’t allow it to end with a neat and simple resolution. This was no uplifting story of redemption but rather a realistic portrayal of how families are impacted by a variety of things (trying not to give away any spoilers). I think many people will love it and I encourage you to try it if the themes sound interesting to you.

Want to try it for yourself? You can find your copy here: On Beauty

Have you read this book? What did you think?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I felt the way you did about White Teeth. While reading I sensed the presence of the writer reminding me “look at how deftly I am writing Archie.” Also feel similarly about her essays. The constant awareness of the “writing” inhibits a good reading experience of Zadie Smith for me.

    Liked by 3 people

    February 25, 2016
    • I think that may be why I also disliked White Teeth. It’s been quite awhile since I read it, but something about it being so aware of its own cleverness put me off. I came to the book thinking I would love it, but I just never really connected with it. Sounds like I might feel the same way about On Beauty.

      Liked by 2 people

      February 25, 2016
    • Yes. Yes, yes, yes. She is too pleased with herself by half. I couldn’t finish White Teeth. No, not true. I couldn’t START White Teeth. The only book I’ve ever abandoned after the first chapter. Precisely for the reasons described above by Typehype and Veronica.

      Liked by 2 people

      February 25, 2016
  2. Jo #

    I didn’t like White Teeth either. On Beauty was better, but, like you, I didn’t love it

    Liked by 1 person

    February 25, 2016
  3. Amanda #

    I agree with you on Zadie Smith. I read On Beauty recently and gave it 2 stars because there was too much going on and no real likable characters. I read White Teeth several years ago and gave it 3 stars, but reading back over my review, there was plenty I didn’t like about it as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 25, 2016
  4. Hooray I’m not alone! I’ve tried a few of her titles now and while I can appreciate the beauty and intelligence of her writing, something just doesn’t gel with me!

    Liked by 1 person

    March 1, 2016
    • Who knew there were so many of us! Until recently, I had only seen people who loved her books. I do think they are brilliantly written and smart but like you, they just don’t feel with me either

      Liked by 1 person

      March 1, 2016

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