Book Review: On Beauty


“Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,” said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies- it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

I first encountered Zadie Smith while taking a special study abroad program in London. My group project was on Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, with my group guiding our classmates on a tour of Zadie Smith’s London, through unglamorous Willesden Green and iconic Trafalgar Square, culminating in a meal of somewhat authentic Indian food in the center of tourist London. I loved White Teeth. It presented a fascinating view of London that I hadn’t encountered in all my years of studying Shakespeare, Dickens, and other British literature: a contemporary London filled with immigrants and children of immigrants, struggling with race and religion and family and growing up. It created a London both fascinating but relatable to me, a child of immigrants.

Although On Beauty mainly takes place in New England, it is quite similar to White Teeth in that it deals with the intertwined tales of two families, with the same themes of black identity, religion, gender, and marriage. Despite the similarities between the two books, though, I simply couldn’t get myself to love On Beauty in the same way that I loved White Teeth. It lacked a certain whimsy and humor that was necessary for me when reading about the characters of White Teeth. The whimsy and humor made it bearable to read about the characters, who were often incredibly selfish.

On Beauty is the story of two families, the liberal Belseys and the conservative Kippses. In addition to this, the cast includes the faculty and staff at the local university, extended family, and various friends and love interests of family members. There were so many characters, introduced early on, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about many of them. So many of the characters were irredeemably  selfish, with so little regret. The reader encounters most of the story from the perspective of Howard, the Belsey patriarch. I found it difficult to sympathize with Howard, who committed unbelievably selfish acts whenever I was on the verge of finding him a likeable character. The only characters I actually cared about were Kiki and Carlene, who had unselfish, genuine feelings for each other and their own families.

Because of the large cast of characters, I found that the plot meandered a bit for my liking. Still, On Beauty offers up some interesting ideas, especially in the form of Levi, desperate to connect with his own identity, the ongoing debates at the university around the concept of affirmative action, and the necessity of rap as modern poetry. I personally thought that the ideas presented in White Teeth were much more interesting and that On Beauty could have been edited to half its actual length, but overall it wasn’t a bad read.

YES OR NO?: YES, but I personally don’t have strong feelings about this book. It was not life-changing, but it also wasn’t a terrible read. I have to admit that I was distracted with other things while trying to read it, so that may explain why I found it difficult to care about the characters. Still, though, I would rather recommend White Teeth or NW as superior examples of Zadie Smith’s genius and humor.