ON BEAUTY

By Zadie Smith
PenguinAugust 2006
us.penguingroup.com

Trade Paperback464 pages, $16.00, ISBN: 9780143037743
Subject: Relationships / Personal Challenges / Coming of Age

  1. At the start of the novel, Howard’s betrayal of Kiki has already set the family reeling off its orbit. What are the effects of his infidelity on the children? How do they react and whom do they side with? He and Kiki interpret the meaning of his act differently? Can you understand both sides? Why do you think Howard is tempted toward sexual betrayal? Where do you imagine their relationship is heading at the end?
  2. The Belsey children are all searching for an adult identity. Jerome has become religious, Zora is imitating her father, and Levi is in search of what he believes will be an authentic ethnicity. What characteristics do the three children share, and how are they like their parents? Which of their current activities do you see as “phases” in their lives, and which do you think are meant to suggest what they will harden into as adults? Which of them do you identify with the most?
  3. The Belseys’ house, beautifully evoked by Smith as the calm center around which the whirlwind of family life turns, embodies the family’s comfortable middle class stature. What does the home represent, both practically and emotionally, to various members of the family? Think about some of the other living spaces in the book—the Kippses’ or Howard’s father’s—and compare them to the Belseys’. What do you think a good house can provide?
  4. Kiki, the most grounded of the characters on the surface, is also struggling to find a place. Her husband and children have embarked on paths different from her own, and she feels alienated by Wellington and Howard’s colleagues there. How do people treat Kiki, and what do both her race and size have to do with this? She says at one point that she gave up her life for Howard; what does she mean by this? Do you think she is more empowered over the course of the novel, or less?
  5. Howard’s academic work is a deconstruction of traditional ideas of genius; he is attempting a book on Rembrandt that is meant to deflate the myth of his originality. His friend Erskine says that “only a man who had such pleasure at home could be . . . so against pleasure in his work.” Why do you think that Howard feels so antagonistic toward representational beauty in art? What does this suggest about the rest of his life? Do you find his ideas interesting or persuasive? Or do you think he is missing something crucial about art or life? What does his visit to his father add to your understanding of him?
  6. Smith quotes Elaine Scarry saying that “a university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.” How would you describe Wellington University; as precious, or something else? What about it as an educational institution is appealing, for the characters or for you? Which of its practices or people does Smith seem critical of? Consider how this college might be representative of both virtues and failings in American culture. How might a university be precious—or beautiful—and how might this be threatened?
  7. The opposition between liberal and conservative seems to be encapsulated in the competing ethics of the Belseys and the Kippses. Yet, for the children as well as for the adults, the lived reality turns out to be somewhat more complex. Consider the various members of the two families. How would you describe each one’s politics or belief system? How do they struggle to fully act on those beliefs in their daily lives? Does anyone really live true to their ideals?
  8. Women’s body issues recur throughout the novel; as Kiki says, “It was in the air . . . this hatred of women and their bodies.” Kiki finds herself too fat, while fading Carlene is too thin; eighteen-year old Vee wildly explores her newly blossomed figure, while the poet Clare seems infantilized in her childlike body. Are their bodies at all accurate representations of who they are? How do they struggle with, or come to terms with, their physical selves? How does someone like Zora, with dueling models Kiki and Clare, feel about her body? Does anyone have a healthy (and sustainable) physical regard for themselves? Why or why not?
  9. The brief friendship between Carlene and Kiki creates a strange but profound connection between the two families, despite the dueling patriarchs. What does Carlene provide for Kiki that her own family does not, and vice versa? Return to their few brief encounters and examine the effect that they have on each other. How does the subject of art and beauty enter into their conversations and thoughts? Do these small moments explain to you why Carlene makes her bequest to Kiki? What is she communicating through that gesture?
  10. Some people have described Smith’s writing as satire—that is, work that exposes human folly, offering it up for ridicule. Do you think her depictions of characters are satirical? Some more than others? Think over times in the novel when you feel that characters have become ridiculous, or when they seem more like caricatures than real people. Which characters or moments in the book transcend such stereotype? Are there characters who are both ridiculous and real?
  11. All of the character’s lives change over the course of the novel—most dramatically, neither the Belseys nor the Kippses retain the same family structure. Whose life is transformed for the better by these changes and who do you feel are still struggling? Who, in the end, finds peace, and by what means? Try to describe this peace or any other satisfactions you think the characters have attained. What are some conclusions that are arrived at concerning art, home, or love? Think about Howard and Kiki’s divergent paths, or the possible futures of Zora, Jerome, or Vee. Whose position would you most like to be in?
  12. The title On Beauty refers to many things: Howard’s theories about art; Kiki’s physical grandeur; the attractiveness of youths like Carl and Victoria; paintings by Rembrandt and other artists; Levi’s sense of the organic flow of street life; Zora’s frustration at her lack of sex appeal; Jerome’s sense of religious transcendence. All of these characters express radically different ideas about the meaning and role of beauty in their lives. What do you think it means, in this novel’s terms, to embrace beauty? What does it mean to be without it? What, to Smith and to you, are truly beautiful things?

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