On Beauty (2006)

by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith set an ambitious design for herself with On Beauty. It’s an academic novel, a domestic comedy, a tale of racial and intercultural tensions, and a sexual farce. It echoes the plot of E. M. Forster’s Howards End and the style of Smith’s successful 2000 debut, White Teeth.

On Beauty revolves around two families whose art historian husbands/fathers are academic enemies. Most of the action takes place at fictional Wellington University, a quintessentially Boston-area elite institution. British-born Howard Belsey is married to an African-American hospital administrator and has made his career in the States. Haitian Monty Kipps teaches in the UK but has been invited to guest lecture at Wellington. The interactions of their two families produce havoc enough, but more conflict arises from relations with less privileged outsiders, including a black rapper and the Haitian immigrant community.

With adroit storytelling and a gift for dialogue, Smith weaves the complex threads of her story into a thought-provoking read about the discordant state of individuals and society in the early 21st century.


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