On Beauty

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Winner of the 2006 Orange Prize for fiction and from the celebrated author of White Teeth comes another bestselling masterwork

Having hit bestseller lists from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle, this wise, hilarious novel reminds us why Zadie Smith has rocketed to literary stardom. On Beauty is the story of an interracial family living in the university town of Wellington, Massachusetts, whose misadventures in the culture wars-on both sides of the Atlantic-serve ...

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Winner of the 2006 Orange Prize for fiction and from the celebrated author of White Teeth comes another bestselling masterwork

Having hit bestseller lists from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle, this wise, hilarious novel reminds us why Zadie Smith has rocketed to literary stardom. On Beauty is the story of an interracial family living in the university town of Wellington, Massachusetts, whose misadventures in the culture wars-on both sides of the Atlantic-serve to skewer everything from family life to political correctness to the combustive collision between the personal and the political. Full of dead-on wit and relentlessly funny, this tour de force confirms Zadie Smith's reputation as a major literary talent.

Named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, Time, and Publishers Weekly A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Denver Post, and Publishers Weekly bestseller A Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Atlantic Monthly, Newsday, Christian Science Monitor, and Minneapolis Star Tribune Best Book of the Year Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize BACKCOVER: Praise for On Beauty:

"A thoroughly original tale . . . wonderfully engaging, wonderfully observed . . . That rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane."
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A thing of beauty. Oh happy day when a writer as gifted as Zadie Smith fulfills her early promise with a novel as accomplished, substantive and penetrating as On Beauty."
-Los Angeles Times

"Smith's specialty is her ability to render the new world, in its vibrant multiculturalism, with a kind of dancing, daring joy. . . . Her plots and people sing with life. . . . One of the best of the year, a splendid treat. "
-Chicago Tribune

"Short-listed for [the 2005] Man Booker Prize, On Beauty is a rollicking satire . . . a tremendously good read."
-San Francisco Chronicle

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Belsey family is at loose ends. Howard is a British-born Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt or his teaching job at an upper-echelon New England arts college. His wife, Kiki, has outlived her image as a sexy radical activist, and their three children are pursuing disparate paths with wholehearted abandon. Then, just at the moment when it seems that total dysfunction has been achieved, one of the offspring falls madly in love with the stunning daughter of a right-wing political commentator. With its spot-on portrayal of the political conflicts and “culture wars” of modern life, Zadie Smith’s novel wittily evokes E. M. Forster’s Howards End and ensures the author a place in the pantheon of 21st-century literary stars.
From the Publisher
"...[A] thoroughly original tale about families and generational change, about race and multiculturalism in millennial America, about love and identity and the ways they are affected by the passage of time. Ms. Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice—at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between—and in these pages, she uses that voice to enormous effect, giving us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Oh happy day when a writer as gifted as Zadie Smith fulfills her early promise with a novel as accomplished, substantive and penetrating as On Beauty. It's a thing of beauty indeed. In tackling grown-up issues of marriage, adultery, race, class, liberalism and aesthetics, she thrillingly balances engaging ideas with equally engaging characters. As good as she is with big ideas, Smith is even stronger at capturing family dynamics, the heartbreak of broken trust as well as the lovely connections between siblings. —The Los Angeles Times Book Review

"In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty's only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone." —Kirkus Reviews

"Smith's specialty is her ability to render the new world, in its vibrant multiculturalism, with a kind of dancing, daring joy. . . . Her plots and people sing with life. . . . One of the best of the year, a splendid treat. " —Chicago Tribune

"On Beauty is a rollicking satire . . . a tremendously good read." —San Francisco Chronicle

Michael Dirda
White Teeth brought Zadie Smith worldwide acclaim when she was in her early twenties, leading some people to fear she might be one of those brilliant one-shot hotshots. But after The Autograph Man and now On Beauty , it's evident that Smith is a writer for the long haul, an artist whose books we will look forward to every few years, a real and deeply satisfying novelist. E.M. Forster would be proud.
— The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
On Beauty opens out to provide the reader with a splashy, irreverent look at campus politics, political correctness and the ways different generations regard race and class, but its real focus is on personal relationships - what E. M. Forster regarded as "the real life, forever and ever." Like Forster, Ms. Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice - at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between - and in these pages, she uses that voice to enormous effect, giving us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane.
— THe New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This is a superb novel, a many-cultured Middlemarch, but it's a rough one for an actor. James juggles a large cast of Brits and Yanks, middle- and working-class white, African-American, West Indian and African men and women, as well as street teens, wannabe street teens and don't-wannabe street teens. James has a beautiful, deep voice that at first seems antithetical to Smith's ship of fools, but he enhances the humor and pathos with vocal understatement. He helps give characters their rightful place in the saga. The parade of characters swirl around two antagonistic Rembrandt scholars in a Massachusetts college town. Howard Belsey is a self-absorbed, working-class British white man married to African-American Kiki and father to three cafe-au-lait children. Monty Kipps is a West Indian stuffed-shirt married to the generous Carlene, with a gorgeous daughter, Veronica. The book is funny and infuriating, crammed with multiple shades of love and lust, midlife and teenlife crises. Class, race and political conflicts are generally an integral part of a story that occasionally strays from its center. The theme of beauty as counterpoint to individual, family, cultural and social foibles and failures ribbons through the novel and wraps it up, perhaps to say that Beauty is, finally, the only Truth. Simultaneous release with the Penguin Press hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 1) (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Smith was highly praised for her debut novel, White Teeth, and it probably set high expectations for this third novel, but she may have tried to be too faithful to the book's inspiration, E.M. Forster's Howard's End. As much as Smith updates the class war with modern references to big-box stores, iPods, politics, and such, the academically based battle between the Kipps and the Belseys is more frozen in Forster's drawing room sensibilities than its contemporary urban settings. The characters are too strained and generally unsympathetic to engage one in their troubles or dreams. Yet Smith's descriptions of some of the personas, particularly the opposing matriarchs and their younger children, suggest a looser story that could have been a lot more fun. The work doesn't live up to the hype, although Peter Francis James's reading is appropriately earnest. Disappointing.-Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A hilarious comedy of manners in the tradition of Austen, Wharton, and Forster, to whom the author pays homage. She tackles class, race, and gender with acerbic wit and a wise eye for the complexities of modern life, in a 21st-century update of Howard's End. Beauty opens as hapless art historian Howard Belsey, a transplanted Englishman married to an African-American woman, returns to London to prevent his son from marrying the daughter of his academic rival, Monty Kipps. Jerome has fallen in love not just with Victoria, but with the entire family, whose Trinidadian, right-wing roots are a sharp contrast to the freewheeling liberalism of his own family. In the meantime, Belsey's other children, social activist Zora and Levi, who speaks only street slang and fancies himself from the 'hood, are each seeking the commitments and identities that will define their own lives. What results is a vivid portrait of marriage, family, the conflict between the political and the personal, and people's eternal affinity for self-deception. Teens will enjoy this romp through the labyrinth of relationships that help a family mature and find its beautiful moments.-Pat Bangs, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An academic comedy of multicultural manners finds Smith recapturing the sparkle of White Teeth (2000). Following her sophomore slump with The Autograph Man (2002), the British author returns to biting, frequently hilarious form with a novel that concerns two professors who are intellectual enemies but whose families become intertwined. Radical theorist Howard Belsey, a British art historian married to the African-American Kiki, detests the cultural conservatism of Monty Kipps, a Caribbean scholar based in England. Kipps apparently has the best of their rivalry, having raised his profile with a well-received book on Rembrandt that stands in stark contrast to Belsey's attempts to complete a counter-argument manuscript. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, Belsey's son becomes engaged to Kipps's irresistibly beautiful daughter, Kipps accepts an invitation to become guest lecturer at the Massachusetts college where Belsey is struggling for tenure and the wives of the two discover that they are soul mates. As Smith details the generation-spanning interactions of various minorities within a predominantly white, liberal community, she finds shades of meaning in shades of skin tone, probing the prickly issues of affirmative action, race relations and cultural imperialism while skewering the political correctness that masks emotional honesty. As the author acknowledges in an afterword, her story's structure pays homage to E.M. Forster's Howards End, recasting the epistolary beginning of that book as a series of e-mails, while incorporating all sorts of contemporary cultural allusions to hip-hop, academic theory and the political climate in the wake of 9/11. Though much of the plot concernsthe hypocrisies and occasional buffoonery of the professors, along with the romantic entanglements and social crises of their offspring, the heart and soul of the novel is Kiki Belsey, who must decide whether to continue to nurture a husband who doesn't deserve her. While some characters receive scant development, the personality that shines through the narrative most strongly is that of Smith. In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty's only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143037743
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/29/2006
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 118,386
  • Product dimensions: 5.45 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Zadie  Smith

ZADIE SMITH was born in northwest London in 1975. She is the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, Changing My Mind, and NW.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Sadie Smith (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 27, 1975
    2. Place of Birth:
      Willesden, London, England
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, King's College at Cambridge University, 1998

Read an Excerpt

One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father:

To: HowardBelsey@fas.Wellington.edu

From: Jeromeabroad@easymail.com

Date: Nov 5th

Subject: (none)

Hey Dad—basically I'm just going to keep on keeping on with these mails—I'm no longer expecting you to reply but I am still hoping you will, if that makes sense.

Well, I'm really enjoying everything. I work in Monty Kipps' own office (did you know that he's actually Lord Monty??), which is in the Green Park area. It's me and a Cornish girl called Emily. She's cool. There's also three more yank interns downstairs (one from Boston!), so I feel pretty much at home. I'm a kind of an intern with the duties of a PA—organizing lunches, filing, talking to people on the phone, that kind of thing. Monty's work is much more than just the academic stuff—he's involved with the Race Commission and he has church charities in Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti etc—he keeps me pretty busy. Because it's such a small set-up, I get to work closely with him—and of course I'm living with the family now, so it's like being completely integrated into something new. Ah, the family. You didn't respond so I'm imagining your reaction (not too hard to imagine...) the truth is it was really just the most convenient option at the time. And they were totally kind to offer—I was being evicted from the 'bedsit' place in Marylebone—and the Kipps aren't under any obligation to me, but they asked and I accepted—gratefully. I've been in their place a week now, and still no mention of any rent, which should tell you something. I know you want me to tell you it's a nightmare but I can't—I love living here. It's a different universe. The house is just wow — early Victorian, a 'terrace'—unassuming looking outside but massive inside — but there's still a kind of humility that really appeals to me—almost everything white, and a lot of hand—made things, and quilts and dark wood shelves and cornices—and in the whole place there's only one television, which is in the basement anyway just so Monty can keep abreast of news stuff, and some of the stuff he does on the television—but that's it. I think of it as the negativized image of our house sometimes... It's in this bit of North London 'Kilburn' which sounds bucolic but boy oh boy is not bucolic in the least, except for this street we live on off the 'high road' and it's suddenly like you can't hear a thing and you can just sit in the yard in the shadow of this huge tree—80 feet tall and ivy-ed all up the trunk... reading and feeling like you're in a novel... Autumn's different here—Fall much less intense and trees balder earlier—everything more melancholy somehow.

The family are another thing again—they deserve more space and time than I have right now (I'm writing this on my lunch hour). But in brief: one boy: Michael, nice, sporty. A little dull, I guess. You'd think he was anyway. He's a business guy—exactly what business I haven't been able to figure out. And he's huge! He's got two inches on you, at least. They're all big in that athletic, Caribbean way. He must be 6' 5". There's also a very tall and beautiful daughter, Victoria—who I've seen only in photos (she's inter-railing in Europe), but she's coming back for a while on Friday, I think. Monty's wife, Carlene Kipps — perfect. She's not from Trinidad, though—It's a small island, St something—but I'm not sure. I didn't properly hear it the first time she mentioned it and now it's like it's too late to ask. She's always trying to fatten me up—she feeds me constantly. The rest of the family talk about sports and God and politics and Carlene floats above it all like a kind of angel — and she's helping me with prayer. She really knows how to pray—and it's very cool to be able to pray without someone in your family coming into the room and a) passing wind b) shouting c) analyzing the 'phoney metaphysics' of prayer d) singing loudly e) laughing.

So that's Carlene Kipps. Tell Mom that she bakes. Just tell her that and then walk away chuckling...

Now, listen to this next bit carefully: in the morning THE WHOLE KIPPS FAMILY have breakfast together and a conversation TOGETHER and then get into a car TOGETHER (are you taking notes?)—I know, I know—not easy to get your head around. I never met a family who wanted to spend so much time with each other.

I hope you can see from everything I've written that your feud or whatever it is is really a waste of time. It's all on your side anyway—Monty doesn't do feuds. You've never even really met properly—just a lot of public debates and stupid letters. It's such a waste of energy. Most of the cruelty in the world is just misplaced energy. I've got to go—work calls!

Love to Mom and Levi, partial love to Zora,

And remember: I love you dad (and I pray for you, too)

phew! longest mail ever!


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Table of Contents

Zadie Smith on Beauty 1. Kipps and Belsey
2. The Anatomy Lesson
3. On Beauty and Being Wrong
Author's Note

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Reading Group Guide

On 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.


Zadie Smith was born in Northwest London in 1975 and still lives in the area. She is the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and On Beauty.


This is a novel based, both in plot and theme, on E. M. Forster’s Howards End. How did you come to the idea of writing such a book? What is it that appeals to you about Forster’s work?

Forster represents one of the earliest loves of my reading life and the first intimations I ever had of the power and beauty of this funny, artificial little construction, the novel. I wanted to pay tribute to the influence he had on me as a teenager, and as it was a book about Beauty, I wanted the novel also to be a record of beautiful things I’ve loved—novels, pieces of music, certain human faces, paintings, and so on. But I actually think the points where On Beauty meets Howards End are the least interesting bits of the book for me. It was simply a way of writing inside a certain genre: the literary update. I was thinking of things like Graham Swift’s As I lay Dying/Last Orders combo; Joyce using the structure of the Ulysses story; Helen Fielding using Pride and Prejudice—to mention three very disparate examples.

It was a kind of scaffolding for me, but in the end the books only meet properly at two or three points. I suppose I still think of myself as an apprentice, and this was the end of one part of my apprenticeship—“learning to write an English novel.” I know many people think of me as too slavish to that tradition, but that’s because I grew up feeling so far from every tradition; I overcompensated. But now I feel “legitimate” in some way; writing this book helped me feel that. The predictable consequence is that it has freed me up and now I want to be illegitimate. I’ll never write a novel so engaged with tradition again, so linear, so—nineteenth century. I finally feel free to do my own thing. This is a long way of saying, working through my Forster habit has got me to a new place.

What was it like adapting Forster’s ideas about class and home to a modern setting? What were the most crucial differences, for you, between Forster’s context and the world of this novel?

Again, this is really not how I was thinking when I was writing. It was just a little hook to hang a novel on; the actual working out of character and plot is a much more intuitive thing than this question imagines. I didn’t even re-read Howards End. All the theories come after the fact.

To answer your question as a critic and not a novelist, the most obvious difference between England circa 1910 and England now is that the sudden drop in fortunes that Leonard Bast experiences—the free-fall from simply “working-class” to “economic and social oblivion”—is not quite as swift nor as absolute as it used to be. Leonard makes one mistake and is doomed. Carl would have many chances. Then again, the permanent dispossessed—the migrant class—Forster wouldn’t recognize that.

This is a complex novel with many major characters. What do you enjoy most about writing in so many voices? Do the many different points of view emerge organically or do you tend to “mastermind” them all from the beginning, so to speak?

I think the interesting thing is it never occurs to me to write in only one voice. That’s the thing about fiction writers: what seems alarming or particular or perverse about them is simply the shape of their brain—they cannot be otherwise. It’s so exotic to me to read, say, a Douglas Coupland novel and hear this one, mesmeric, first-person voice passing through the whole, but that’s the shape of his brain, and third-person refractions of large families with different voices is the shape of mine. I don’t mastermind it—I can’t help it. I suppose I must enjoy it, but I think the deeper motivation is that I find my strength there. Writing in the first person is completely alien to me—I wouldn’t know where to begin. I do notice that some writers ignore voice, or bring all voices to the same frequency, and this is because their emphasis—their understanding of the difference that makes all the difference—is different from mine. Ian McEwan, for example, clearly at some level feels the great difference between people is their capacity for cruelty. I think the beliefs that novelists hold about character are formed within them when they are very young, long before they actually start writing. For personal reasons to do with my upbringing, the questions of accents, of class-as-revealed-through-voice, weighed very heavily on me. It’s actually an aspect of my fiction, of myself, that I find a little depressing. There are deeper differences between people than the social, but I find it hard to express them without making some reference to the social.

All of the English characters—aside from Howard’s father—live some or most of their lives away from their native land, as you yourself have done. How has living in “exile” changed the way you write? Do you identify in particular with Howard, as an Englishman in America?

Living in “exile” sounds so romantic, but the truth is, I’ve never done it. I have the opposite experience: I live on the same street I was born on and have been in the same half-mile nest of streets for thirty years. I’m very attracted to exile literature—particularly Nabokov—exactly because the idea of being away from home for any serious length of time is so inconceivable to me. But what I saw when I was in America for a brief spell, teaching—and what I hope to see again when I visit Rome for a few months—is how sensuously nostalgic your writing becomes when you’re away. That incredible Nabokovian wistful lyricism, the kind you find in Speak, Memory—that’s what I associate with exile. Or the Joyce who wrote Dubliners while in Trieste. Basically, I only ever leave home so I can feel lonesome for it.

What was it like trying to capture the voices of Americans, especially in the younger characters? Are there characters in this book that you think would only be found in the United States?

I made many, many mistakes with the American dialogue. I knew I would. The same was true of the “Bengali” dialogue inWhite Teeth. If you write about people who aren’t you, that’s always going to happen. You have to ready yourself for the postbag of outraged people telling you no one speaks like that. But I suppose I rebel against that a little; it irritates me when people write to me and say, “A Black American Woman would never say that.” Really? How come? There must be one, somewhere, who just might. No one ever writes and says, “A white man would never say that,” because white men can say anything they like; they can sound like Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace or Marcel Proust. They apparently have the tongue of the world. So I try to listen and make things believable, but a part of me is resistant to the very idea of absolute “correctness” when it comes to human behavior, and I just don’t have that journalistic interest in veracity. People who do will always fling my books across the room, which they are completely free to do. But I guess I like my freedom of making up speech, of making it work in the world of the novel.

This work, as with your others, is at times laugh-out-loud funny. What role does humor play in your writing process? Is it something you try to interject or does it just emerge? Do you consider your work to be satirical?

I really love this quote that I heard George Saunders repeat recently: satire is the imperfect praise of perfection. That’s a very Socratic idea, weeding out the false to incrementally reveal the true, or the true-er. I don’t sit down to write “satire,” and I hate what is usually called “satire,” but you’re absolutely right that a tone of great solemnity is not available to me. When I think of the books I love, there’s always a little laughter in the dark. I love Jane Eyre; I don’t love Wuthering Heights. I love Tolstoy; I don’t love Dostoevsky. I love Joyce; I don’t love Proust. I love Nabokov; I don’t love Pasternak. I don’t think I’m a funny person, but the fiction I grew up on was leavened with humor—I understand the other tradition and I admire it, but I just don’t love it. It never occurs to me to write as, say, A. S. Byatt writes, as I’m sure she would never dream in a squillion years of writing like me. The ironic theme in English writing—and I don’t mean po-mo irony, I mean the irony of someone like Defoe or Dickens—is either in you or it isn’t. Those who find Austen arch and cold and ironical, lacking the kind of intimate and metaphysical commitment of a writer like Emily Brontë cannot be convinced otherwise and vice versa. I appreciate both schools, but I can’t get out of the side I’m on. I don’t think I’d want to, though occasionally I have wet dreams about turning into Iris Murdoch.

Is Wellington based on your own experiences—either as student or teacher—at universities? What aspects of the academic environment do you most like and dislike? How has it influenced you as a writer? Will you continue to teach?

Wellington is based on both—experiences as student and teacher. I think the larger part is based on my student experiences, because they were simply much longer and more substantial. My relationship with universities is very screwy. I wanted to be an academic and planned to be one, and then I started writing White Teeth—ten years of my life vanished into novels. I certainly think of it as the road less traveled, a road I would have liked to go down.

My main feeling is that my time as a student, especially my last year, was genuinely the happiest period of my life. But—BIG BUT—there were many things about academic life that I found unbearably oppressive and absurd. There’s so much of one’s real lived experiences that you have to leave at the gates. There’s something about English departments in particular—a kind of desperate need to be serious, to be professional, to police this very ambiguous and necessarily amorphous act, reading—that I find hard to deal with. English, as a subject, never really got over its upstart nature. It tries to bulk itself up with hopeless jargon and specious complexity, tries to imitate subjects it can never be. I always feel a disappointment coming out of English departments, as if all these brilliant people are gathered and poised to study something and all they have to study is . . . these things? Novels? But they’re so . . . smooshy. It’s as if, at some fundamental level, they consider the novel beneath them. They want something more macho, harder, with a more rigorous structure. It depresses me, how embarrassed some people seem to be about novels, how much they want them to be something else. The flip side of that experience is finding a professor here, a professor there, who is absolutely willing to engage with everything a novel is and face up to its strengths and failures as a human product and allow students to express their most intimate intellectual and emotional experiences of reading. When that happens, there’s no better place to be in a university than in an English department. But when someone is spending a semester explaining to you why Adam Bede is an example of the nineteenth-century pastoral fallacy, that’s a little demoralizing. To me, a university is one of the most precious of human institutions; that’s why when they fall short of their own ideals, you feel so cheated.

Howard and Kiki’s marriage is one of opposites, as you say: “He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political.” How fundamental are these oppositions? What do you think two such people provide for each other? Do you have an idea in your own mind of where their marriage is headed after the end of the book?

I used to think those differences made all the difference. They don’t mean anything. All that matters is kindness and the capacity to recognize the existence of people other than you. It’s a couple’s relative ability to do that—this is what really matters. Many of the things I was taught to believe were important—tastes, opinions, talents—I don’t believe in their importance any more. I grew up in a family that put all the emphasis on talents: what can you do? My adult life has pushed me toward the understanding that what I can do is neither here nor there, that these are the most superficial elements of a person’s character. The most intimate thing I can tell you about On Beauty is it was a book born out of that realization, and then after I finished it, I realized that writing something is not the same work as living it. The depth of the book comes from the realization, and the shallow parts of it come from me really not having the knowledge I pretend to have. That’s a long way of saying that writing about a thirty-five-year marriage is not the same as living one. The other big news of my adult life is that I can’t live my whole life on the page!

I have absolutely no idea where their marriage is headed. The book ends for me exactly where it ends for you. I have no imagination outside of my books.

9. On Beauty contains some amazing portraits of serious, ambitious women who are struggling with the competing demands of motherhood, sexuality, body issues, career, and ideology. What do you find to be the biggest struggle for contemporary women? What unique challenges, difficulties, or joys do you find in the process of writing about women?

First of all I have to show you an Iris Murdoch quote:

The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one. . . . This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals.

For me, that project—not giving into personal fantasy, not being deluded, recognizing the inviolability of other people—is seriously complicated by being female. You look at life for women today, it is the very definition of personal fantasy, of self-delusion, and of a narcissism so acute that to read through your average issue of a glamorous women’s magazine is not that different from reading a porn mag—in fact, there are more adoring/self-hating naked female images in the women’s mag. We are fixated on our own image, utterly deluded about our own bodies, about the whole realm of the physical. It’s perfectly normal to open a magazine and hear from an eighty-five-pound woman that starvation is her personal choice, from a woman about to undergo breast augmentation that major unnecessary invasive surgery is a dream come true, or from a prostitute that she loves her job, that she wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world. It’s a pretty extraordinary situation. And these are just the cosmetic struggles—there are women all over the world who live like medieval slaves. So—how to lighten up this answer—well, I guess the really interesting and difficult thing about writing women characters is that you have to deal with the idea of people who lie about themselves constantly and lie to themselves constantly and are maybe so deeply invested in that lie that there really isn’t anything resembling truth left. So that’s tricky. Also, there’s some bleak humor in the gap between women’s ideas of themselves and the reality of their actions. So, for example, the ruling belief shared by men and women is that women aren’t really visually aroused in the same way as men, and that they value romance enormously and that they are frequently cheated on by their husbands. But in fact it’s been demonstrated that women cheat just as much as men, and it is often a purely sexual affair. I find that very interesting—the stories women tell themselves, and the enormous industry that exists to flatter and elaborate their fondest fantasies. But really I guess I’m talking about young women. Something changes when women are forced out of the beauty industry and the marital fantasy industry—I think they become their real selves. Women like Kiki, like Carlene, in their fifties, are a whole different ball game. They are humans, not refracted images of some insane feminine myth. When I was fourteen I thought I hated women, and then when I grew up I realized I just really didn’t like fourteen-year-old girls. I wanted Kiki to be a celebration of a free female consciousness. She’s completely idealized for that reason. But why not? Men get to have heroes—Kiki’s my kind of hero.

In writing about three mixed-race children, you are writing about what many people think is the inevitable future of the human race. Yet each of the Belsey children really seems to struggle to find an identity that works. How do you imagine their futures? What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this inheritance of multiple countries and multiple races?

The Belsey children don’t struggle to find an identity because they’re mixed race, they struggle because they are “of Modernity,” and the product of a twentieth century that invented and patented this piece of claptrap called “finding an identity,” and it drives everybody nuts, mixed race or no. The search for an identity is one of the most wholesale phony ideas we’ve ever been sold. In the twenty-first century it’s almost entirely subsumed in its purest form of “brand identity”—for Levi to be “more black” would simply involve the purchasing of items connected with the idea of blackness. How can anyone be more black? Or more female? It’s like saying “I want to be more nose-having, more leg possessing.” People can only be defined by their actions in a world that contains other people. Sitting on a hill alone screaming “I am a Muslim in the 24–29 age bracket who likes Pepsi and sitcoms about loose bands of interconnected young people in my age group; I am a person who is French and into the things of Frenchness; I am a basketball player; a flower picker . . .” What does it mean? The Belsey children need to stop worrying about their identity and concern themselves with the people they care about, ideas that matter to them, beliefs they can stand by, tickets they can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful. The Belseys need to weigh situations as they appear before them, and decide what they want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.

This is your third novel and it seems, especially in its elaborate and masterful descriptions, your most accomplished. How has the actual practice of writing changed for you? Was On Beauty written in a similar manner to your previous works, or has your work style changed?

I’m glad if that’s true—I’d be disappointed if I thought I hadn’t made at least a little progress since I wrote White Teeth. I was twenty when I started that book—I’m thirty now. The practice of writing has defined me utterly; I never got a chance to do anything else with my life. The past ten years have been spent basically in my study. I’ve worked very hard at trying to make up for what I obviously lack—real lived experience. I’ve tried to rid myself of the belief that I don’t have a real life—a toxic idea. Everybody’s life has an equal reality. But I did feel that the writing in White Teeth is basically adolescent, a very good fake, and, after it’s success, I realized my writing would have to do its maturing and development in public. Most writers don’t have a White Teeth hanging around—they arrive a little more formed with an On Beauty. My juvenilia is on the shelf for anyone to look at. But there’s a lot in On Beauty that is still hamstrung and dutiful to an idea of the novel that I don’t really believe in, intellectually. I think when you say it’s the most accomplished you mean “It looks and smells just like a real novel.” But what’s the point of that really? This is what I have to figure out in the next ten years. I think the biggest change in me and my writing is the realization that in the end my best work might be nonfiction. I’m writing criticism now and I feel so much more confident and happy about it. It allows me to express my passion, which is really other people’s fiction. I find it hard to express anything really personal to me in the fiction: I’m too self-conscious. But maybe that will change.

Please talk to us a little about the title, On Beauty. Why did you choose it and what does it mean to you?

It’s not a very interesting answer. I felt a lot of my fiction to be very essayistic, very tick-all-the-boxes, so I wanted to give this one an essay title and do exactly the opposite; be free with it, let it go its own way. I can’t explain it any better than that. My titles always come immediately to me and are never changed. I never really have a very good reason for them apart from the fact that they seemed inevitable.


  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 53 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 53 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 22, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    on beauty

    I read this book because it was on the list of 1001 books to read before you die. Though I'm still not sure why it's on that list, I did enjoy the book. I found that I liked most of the characters, though Kiki was my favorite. I think that it showed that no one really is as they appear to be to others. I also think that Zadie Smith's writing style is excellent. I had no trouble whatsoever following the dialogue and keeping up with what was going on. I would recommend this book to friends who like to read something different.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2008

    A Brilliant Book

    I'd heard lots of hype about Zadie Smith, and I was not disappointed with On Beauty. The book's unconventional opening line had me hooked: 'One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father:' The son is saving his virginity for marriage because of a new-found Christian faith, and his liberal, British father, a professor, is unamused - particularly when Jerome falls in love with the daughter of his arch-nemesis, a black, right-wing conservative who is anti-affirmative action, homosexuality, women's rights...and then we're off. Smith dexterously explores issues of race, class and culture through the lens of a family, name-dropping from Rembrandt to Tupac. This is a book that will set the benchmark for future 'modern classics.' Here's an example of her writing chops: 'From here she could see the strangely melancholic format of Jerome's text, italics and ellipses everywhere. Slanted sails blowing about on perforated seas.'

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 22, 2012

    She's a great writer and I love this novel. I don't read novels

    She's a great writer and I love this novel. I don't read novels for plot I read them for language and thinking. This is a fine novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The name of the title tells it all: On Beauty! I haven't read co

    The name of the title tells it all: On Beauty! I haven't read contemporary fiction before until I joined a class at school and this is one of the books we had to read. The facts to this story are oh-so-real that you feel the emotions for the characters. Excellent!

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  • Posted May 20, 2012


    I loved "White Teeth," but Smith outdid herself with this one. Truly extraordinary--and it stays with you.

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  • Posted December 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A so, so interesting read.

    The story revolves around two families that live in Mass. The reader will find the Belseys family with the main character Howard Belsey an Art professor and from the second family; the Kipps there is Monty Kipps. Monty arrives with his family and begins his work at the same university that Howard is employed. In summary these two characters lock horns on various social issues (family life, marriage, faithfulness, etc.) and their strong views are covered in this story that spans over a one year period.
    I suspect that so far this sounds boring, but the author did weave this subplot (I say subplot because there seemed to be numerous plots where I'm in the middle or I'm just starting another one) into the story to make it very interesting. I use the word "interesting" loosely because I found it difficult to find a lot of empathy for the host of characters, although Zora with her sexual problems did stand out in my memory.

    The ending was a let down for me. It left me sort of confused, as if there were more pages to the story that needed to be read. Maybe that was intentional by the author. Overall I'm not sure if I would recommend "On Beauty" to my friends. I guess I would have to be very selective if I did opt to encourage someone to buy the book. Maybe, my best bet would be to advise them to check it out at the library.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2010

    Zadie in Bosnia

    Believe it or not, I picked this book up in an America book store in Bosnia. The shop own chatted with me for a few minutes and then pulled this book out. It was a great book. The author pulls you into each character and she makes you reflect on life, especially life on the east coast of the states. Great read!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2008

    A Real Disappointment

    After the reviews, I thought this was going to be a great read. It wasn't even a good read. The attempts at American diction are pretty poor, the characters are annoying and unrealistic, and some of the passages are just boring. And what's with the mediocre poetry? It seems that this went straight from her desk to the publishing house, without stopping by an editor.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2007

    Not an enjoyable read

    I was told this book had dark humor and sarcasm, but I didn't find it funny at all. Didn't particularly like it.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2007

    Love Zadie, but she fell flat here

    I so wanted to enjoy this book, but I just didn't. I first read Autograph Man and fell in love with Zadie Smith. I also enjoyed White Teeth and was really anticipating this book, but it's been weeks and I'm still trying to drag my way through it. I found the characters generally unlikable and I really, really want Zadie to ask an American to read her writing before she attempts any more American dialogue 'or descriptions for that matter'. Should Levi really say, 'So then what am I meant to do?' or SHOULD he say, 'So, NOW what am I supposed to do?' We never say 'I have done.', we say 'I have.' I could go on and on. Basically, it's an 'American' book told in a British voice when each part should be told in the voice of its narrator. The constant shift between under-developed characters makes for a confusing and interrupted read. Something would finally start to happen with one character, when boom - now you're back with some character you haven't heard from in chapters who never really did anything anyway. I'm hoping that this one is a learning experience for Ms. Smith and I'm still awaiting her next novel. Based solely on her first two, I would read anything that she puts out there (no matter how long it may take).

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2007


    Weeks after finishing this novel, I am still seeing and hearing and thinking about these characters. I should say that I had it read to me, an unabridged 'Books on CD' version, and when I say I am hearing it, I mean it. I sometimes turn and look at the source of a voice reminiscent of the orator's who painted these rich, tortured, and growing people on my brain and ears canvas, and whose lives I was lucky enough to catch some glimpses of. And if you are expecting a novel that is tied up with a bow and handed back to you, let yourself explore the surprise of this author's style. I believe this is really why I keep thinking about them, and wondering how this and that turned out.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2007

    I kept looking for the 'humor'

    This book was given to me by an English teacher of 30+ years and dear friend. As an avid (understatement) reader, I was delighted, having read the sterling reviews. However, I think I missed the point. I didn't find it particularly amusing and somewhat confusing in 'so what's the point?'. I find Smith's writing to be sterling, her imagery flawless, but her point is lost on me. I do understand the race issue, the problem with pre and post adolescent children. I'm not sure where she's going with all of this. Sex (in a sensational, adolescent context, academia, race and family dysfunction (somewhat deritivate)and not necessarily in that order and so? . . . . .

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2006

    A bit of a disappointment

    There are some great insights in this novel, especially about race and class and people who don't fit neatly into categories. On the whole, though, I found the book a bit dull and draggy, and, with the exception of Kiki and Levi, found every character really unlikeable. I didn't dislike the book but would not recommend it to a friend.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2006

    I liked the book, but not most of the characters...

    Though I think 'On Beauty' is a great work of fiction and you can tell Zadie Smith's writing is amazingly accomplished, I still left the book feeling like I wished I had a fuller understanding of many of the characters. I think only Kiki and Howard get a real thorough treatment. Smith's writing, not her characters, really pulled me into this work and I'd recommend it to other readers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2006

    I'm sorry but this book is dull.

    I also don't know what all the hype is about. I didn't read White Teeth, but maybe it was better. Anyway, I just did not relate to or like the characters. The story did not grab me. I had no desire to even finish reading it, as I found it so boring.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2006

    Howards End

    If you've read the the E.M. Forster classic, or seen the movie with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, you'll love this clever adaption. I'd compare it to the rendering of Austen's Emma into the film 'Clueless'. Recreated to a modern setting, retelling the beautiful and complex interaction of two families and opposing ideas about class, sex, and roots.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2006

    Don't worry, I didn't like the book either.....

    I don't know what all the hubbub about this book is. Grannted, Zadie Smith writes beautifully and her insights and descriptiuons can be engaging and revelatory. But as a whole, 'On Beauty' did not draw me into the plot. Many of the characters are pretentious and unlikable. There is not a gripping aspect to the book. It's not as if you are in dying need to know what dull remark Howard is about to make. The plot is anecdotal and not tightly woven. No doubt you can find some amazing passages in the book but for me, it falls very short of greatness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2006

    Am I the only person who does not like this book?

    I found the characters in 'On Beauty' to be unbelievable and mostly unlikable. The book would not have made me angry if the author wasn't so obviously capable of better writing. Or if all the media had not gushed so much over the book. I think that the plot is forced ... could two families ever be that entwined on every level? Could all of those people be so uniformly annoying, clueless, and in a couple of cases, evil? Also, I found the older people to be one-dimensional. Perhaps because the author is young. I read nothing but the highest praise for 'On Beauty' but I don't think that this is one of the world's great books. I feel as if Zadie Smith is very smart and has great potential. I have not read her other books but will probably do so out of curiosity.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2005

    She's done it again.

    I read 'White Teeth' a few months ago and didn't think she could top that. I was wrong. This is a beautifully written and funny book. Ms. Smith is so insightful when it comes to the human condition. I can't wait to read her next book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2005

    Beautiful Words in 'On Beauty'

    Zadie Smith writes a novel with a story about two families that will last in your memory for a long time. Her characters are unforgettable too. The author writes with pathos, emotion, and also humor. I read the first and last chapters over again, after I finished the book.

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