The story begins with Jerome Belsey, the eldest son of Howard and Kiki, in England. He is staying with the Kipps family. Shortly afterward, when he realizes that he is not going to marry Victoria Kipps, Jerome flies home to Wellington, a small New England college town where his father is a professor at Wellington College. Not long after Jerome's homecoming, Monty Kipps is offered a job at Wellington. The Kippses move into the Wellington neighborhood not far from the Belseys. Although there is another trip to England when Mrs. Kipps dies, the rest of the story takes place in Wellington, a fictitious town an hour or so outside of Boston.

There are no specific events mentioned that allow the reader to pinpoint the date, though one can assume that it is fairly contemporary. Some clues are that the music mentioned is rap and hip-hop. There is also a discussion of immigrants from the Caribbean, especially Haitians, which could place this story in the 1990s. Another contemporary element is affirmative action, specifically the preferential treatment given to African Americans in the attempt to gain a representative population of black students on college campuses.

On a deeper level, the setting includes issues of black versus white neighborhoods. This is seen through Levi and Carl. Levi, who was raised in the midst of upper-middle-class white culture, does not feel black enough.  In an attempt to fit in, he adopts the slang and wardrobe of inner-city blacks. He complains of feelings uncomfortable walking through his own neighborhood, where people's first reactions, he assumes, are to think he does not belong there. Carl, the young poet, has similar feelings. At one point, Levi invites Carl to his house. When Carl shows up, Howard Belsey does not recognize him and does not invite him into his home. Later, Carl points out how hypocritical the Belseys and the Kippses are. Their kids look black, but they are really white, he charges. Their actions toward other blacks are based on feeling sorry for them not on an underlying understanding of what it means to be truly black in America.

On Beauty

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The British novelist Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth (2000), appeared when its author was twenty-five years old; she was favorably compared to the likes of Salman Rushdie and Charles Dickens. The book became a best seller, a prizewinner, and a television adaptation aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). White Teeth, which was written during Smith’s final student year at Cambridge University, was a boisterous, multigenerational novel set in a north London multiracial neighborhood of blacks, Asians, and whites much like the Willesden, where Smith grew up as the daughter of a black Jamaican mother and a white English father. Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man (2002), did not equal the expectations set by its predecessor; it concentrated on a smaller cast of characters, focused on a young autograph dealer, and explored the effects of fame as its action shuttled between suburban England and New York City.

On Beauty, Smith’s third novel, was short-listed for Britain’s coveted Man Booker Prize and may be poised to surpass the success of White Teeththe British company FilmFour purchased the motion-picture rights. As in The Autograph Man, the action of On Beauty also spans the Atlantic Ocean, this time between London and suburban Boston, with the preponderant share of its events occurring in the United States. Its American setting is the fictitious college town of Wellington, an academic environment that owes much to Smith’s year as a fellow at Radcliffe/Harvard (2002-2003). The title of the novel also acknowledges the influence of the distinguished Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, whose book On Beauty and Being Just (1999) argues that over the preceding two decades, aesthetics (beauty) has lost too much ground to political correctness (being just)which is not to say that Scarry is an ivy-cloistered aesthete, for her publications have included speculations on electromagnetic interference (EMI) as a cause of air crashes and on the currently vexed topic of torture in her work The Body in Pain (1985).

Another influence on Smith can be seen in the book’s opening narrative, its ensemble of characters, its concatenation of events, and its spirit of liberal humanismthe influence of E. M. Forster. In fact, Smith has, in the most honorific postmodern sense and in a wittily inventive fashion, appropriated Forster’s Howards End (1910), thereby providing an intriguing dialogic reading experience for those familiar with Forster. The matter of On Beauty, however, is substantively Smith’s. Primarily, her novel raises very American issues about the culture war between liberals and conservatives, about class and race, and about what women purpose with their lives.

Just as Howards End begins with letters followed by anger, so does On Beauty commence with a flurry of e-mails followed by pique. The e-mails reveal that two young people have experienced infatuation to the point of an engagement, whereupon an alarmed family elder is dispatched to end the undesirable match. The e-mails do demonstrate the advances that humanity has made in the technology of communication, but the pique demonstrates the persistence of humanity’s penchant for misunderstanding, miscommunication, and taking offence.

The two young people are from families of opposed sociopolitical beliefs. The Belseys are a suburban, mixed-race American family of liberal persuasion (like Forster’s Schlegels). The Kippses are a knighted, distinguished black family of Caribbean origins settled in London and of decidedly conservative views (like Forster’s Wilcoxes). Howard Belsey, his clan’s fifty-six-year-old paterfamilias, is a professor of art history who is struggling to complete a book deconstructing Rembrandt. Sir Monty Kipps is a distinguished intellectual who has completed a best-selling book praising Rembrandt’s genius. The two men have so far been cordial enemies.

Complications arise when Jerome, the virginal collegiate Belsey son, becomes a Christian (against his atheist father’s objections), takes a summer job in London as Kipps’s intern, and becomes briefly engaged to Victoria, the Kipps’s teenage daughter. Howard flies to London to break up the match which, unknown...

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On Beauty Bibliography

Bangs, Pat. 2006. "Review of On Beauty." School Library Journal, 52 (2): 157–58. Bangs recommends this novel for teens, who will get a good laugh from it.

Dirda, Michael. 2005. "A Clash Between Two Radically Different Families Is at the Heart of Zadie Smith’s Biting New Novel." Washington Post, September 11, p. T.15. Brief summary and detailed review.

Frey, Jennifer. 2005. "Providing a Piece of Her Young Life." Los Angeles Times, November 26, p. E.26. Frey provides a review of On Beauty and talks to the author about her writing.

Leddy, Chuck. 2006. "Zadie Smith’s World View." The Writer, 119 (2): 2-23. A review of On Beauty as well as an interview with the author.

Marshall, John. 2005. "Zadie Smith; the Cult of Celebrity Doesn’t Interest This Brit-Lit Phenom." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 14, p. C.1. Marshall provides insights into Smith’s life and the inspiration behind On Beauty.

Metcalf, Stephen. 2005. "Dear Booker Committee." Slate, September 13. Retrieved from <>. Metcalf praises Smith for her ability to write but finds On Beauty a little sloppy.

Rich, Frank. 2005. "Zadie Smith’s Culture Warriors." New York Times Book Review, September 18, p. 1–3. Rich offers a deep look into the qualities of Smith’s On Beauty.

Zipp, Yvonne. 2005. "The Remake of 'Howards End' Is a True Beauty.” Christian Science Monitor, September 16, p. 13. Zipp compares On Beauty to other authors’ works.

On Beauty Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 22 (August 1, 2005): 1953.

The Economist 376 (September 10, 2005): 81-82.

Harper’s Magazine 311 (October, 2005): 83-88.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 15 (August 1, 2005): 812.

Library Journal 130, no. 13 (August 15, 2005): 73.

The Nation 281, no. 10 (October 3, 2005): 25-28.

The New York Times 154 (September 13, 2005): E1-E8.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (September 18, 2005): 1-11.

The New Yorker, October 3, 2005, pp. 99-101.

Newsweek 146,...

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