Critical Overview

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, received almost as much attention and critical acclaim as did her first book, White Teeth (2000). Critics were waiting to see if she could keep up the pace and apparently most were not disappointed. For example, John Marshall of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote, “On Beauty showcases Smith’s prodigious talents, her ability to create varied characters, her masterful storytelling and dialogue, her remarkable insights into family and social life, her breadth of knowledge and interests from painting’s Dutch masters to hip-hop’s hit men.”

On Beauty was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, England’s most coveted literary award. Although some critics pointed out shortcomings in the story, many found that this novel proves Smith is not just a one-good-book author. Michael Dirda of the Washington Post praised the novel, saying, “Her new novel is masterly on almost any level—impressive in its command of every register of English, never tiresome despite its length and astonishingly sympathetic to every sort of human frailty.”

Pat Bangs, writing for the School Library Journal, described On Beauty as a “romp through the labyrinth of relationships that help a family mature.” Similarly, Chuck Leddy, of The Writer, mentioned Smith’s writing ease: “Smith smoothly interweaves high culture and pop culture, lucidly writing about Rembrandt and rap music, Mozart and Eminem with respect for everything along the spectrum.” Jennifer Frey, of the Los Angeles Times, focused on Smith’s ability to create believable characters. “What is striking about On Beauty is the authenticity of the characters and their voices, be it the older Howard Belsey or his teenage son Levi.”

And then there is Frank Rich’s analysis in the New York Times Book Review: “She brings almost everything you want to the task: humor, brains, objectivity, equanimity, empathy, a pitch-perfect ear for smugness and cant, and then still more humor.”