On BeautyOn Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third novel, is both a tribute to and a riff on English novelist E. M. Forster’s Howards End, updated as an exploration of the politics of contemporary life. In a book as bold and funny as it is precise and insightful, Smith applies her dazzling powers of description to a middle-class family in the United States. The Belseys are based at a fictional college called Wellington, where earthy African American Kiki, abstract—and English—Howard, and their three searching children seem the picture of modern liberal success. Yet in spite of their outward harmony and privilege, all are eagerly pursuing private agendas. Jerome, the eldest child, is alienated from his secular and liberal family by his conversion to Christianity and attraction to conservatism. Zora, the only daughter, aggressively follows her father’s path, attending Wellington where she adopts a veneer of sophistication and maturity that disguises her insecure heart. The youngest, Levi, longing for an authentic “blackness,” is absorbed into a countercultural identity that belies his class status.
The novel unfolds through a series of unexpected disruptions to the Belsey’s idyllic life. First comes the arrival in town of the Kippses, led by Monty, Howard’s bitter rival in theory and politics. Kipps and his family are, on paper, the Belseys’ opposites: the polished men epitomize a conservative ethic while the decorative women are expected to follow traditional gender roles. Yet the mothers, Carlene and Kiki, form a bond as wives of willful men and as lovers of beauty, a bond that disturbs the balance of distrust between the two families. Additional troubles add to the fray: Howard and Kiki’s marriage is in danger; Jerome falls deeply in love with Monty Kipps’s daughter Victoria; an educated young spoken-word artist enters the Wellington world and Zora’s life; recent immigrants from Haiti transform Levi; and at Wellington Monty Kipps and Howard are on a collision course that threatens Howard’s hard-won status. In these conflicts Smith considers the impact of lies, the humiliation of unrequited love, and the battle between the will of the mind and the desires of the body as each member of the Belsey family questions their previous assumptions about family, race, and morality.
On Beauty is a hilarious, scathing, and emotionally profound novel of human aspiration and failure, an unfailingly perceptive portrait of a struggling marriage, and an empathetic depiction of adolescent struggle. It is also an outsider’s witty look at American cultural life floundering under the weight of political and cultural divisions. Will Howard and Kiki’s marriage survive? How will the feud between Howard and Monty be resolved? Which of the Belsey children are poised to find a true and lasting identity, and which are teetering toward heartbreak? Who will find their true place, and will it be found in family or home, in nationality, abstract theory, or religion? This is Zadie Smith on beauty—exploring who possesses it and who longs for it, who embraces it and who denies it, who exploits it and who is destroyed by it—in a novel both entertaining and wise that consolidates her position as one of the most spellbinding writers of her generation.