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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is an intricate study of love in all of its manifestations, challenges, and complications. Smith explores love for one's partner in good times and bad. She examines the differences between love and sex and the conflicts between love and independence. Finally, the author addresses the fundamental need to love one's self before love can be shared.

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Smith's discourse on love is told through the relationships of the Belsey family. Howard Belsey is white. His wife, Kiki, is black. The couple has three mixed-race children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Although Howard and Kiki have been married for thirty years, their marriage is in trouble. Howard is a philanderer. Kiki, although strong in many ways, feels dependent on her husband and resents her own sacrifices to further his needs. Her personal loss makes her all the more resentful of Howard's indiscretions.

All is not well for the three Belsey children either. Jerome, the eldest, has a brief affair with the beautiful but sexually manipulative Victoria Kipps, the daughter of Howard's professional nemesis. Victoria humiliates Jerome by mocking his emotions. Jerome bears the scars of her scorn.

Middle child Zora has an incredible intelligence but a debilitating lack of self-confidence, particularly when it comes to her body image.

Levi, the youngest, has been raised in England and in a small, mostly white and well-to-do Massachusetts town. But Levi wants to be "of the people"—which, to Levi, means black people living in the Bronx. Levi emulates the rappers he listens to all day through his headphones. He wants so much to be black that he falls in with a group of black immigrants. Levi is willing to do anything to help them and be accepted as one of them, even if that means stealing. While all of this sounds quite serious, Levi's antics are often employed as comic relief.

On Beauty allows readers to watch how the Belsey family deals with one another and with the people who enter and exit their lives.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930

Part I: Kipps and Belsey

This first section of Smith's On Beauty is used to identify the major characters and to set up the dynamics among them. The story begins with e-mails from Jerome Belsey to his father, Howard. Jerome is temporarily living in London. He is staying with the Kipps family. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps have very different political and academic philosophies. Howard is liberal. Kipps is conservative. Howard is white and British. Kipps is a Jamaican black. Both have taken a deep interest in the artist Rembrandt, but their opinions are quite different. Kipps has just published a book on Rembrandt. Belsey's book remains unfinished.

With their great differences, jealousies, and dislike for one another, it is no surprise that Howard is not pleased that his son Jerome is staying at the Kipps's house. Furthermore, Howard is mortified when Jerome writes that he is going to marry Kipps' daughter, Victoria.

As it turns out, Jerome, who is a social misfit, has misinterpreted Victoria's attentions towards him. Jerome had been a virgin. Victoria definitely was not. She has sex with Jerome but is not in love with him and certainly has no intention of getting married. Jerome realizes his mistake too late.  Both families are incensed. Mortified, Jerome comes home in distress.

Home for the Belseys is Wellington, a small college town outside of Boston. Howard is a professor of art history at Wellington College. Kiki, his black wife, is a hospital administrator. The couple has three children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Howard and Kiki are planning a party to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary, but there is tension in the air. Howard has recently admitted to an affair. He claims that it was a one-night stand while he was at a conference in Michigan. He has not named the woman, and so far, Kiki has not pressed the issue.

But at the party, Claire Malcolm, a longtime friend of Howard's and a fellow faculty member at Wellington, makes a motion that is too personal for Kiki's keen sense. Claire, while talking to Howard, touches his chest and slips her finger between two buttons on his shirt. Kiki, standing nearby, reads her husband's face. She now knows that Howard's affair has been with Claire. Kiki tells Howard he can continue to live at the house, but she will have nothing to do with him from now on.

In the meantime, the Belseys have also heard that Monty Kipps has been offered a teaching position at Wellington College and has moved his family into a house down the street. Howard is frustrated and Jerome is embarrassed. Kiki, on the other hand, goes out of her way to meet Kipps' wife, Carlene. Kiki likes the older woman and looks forward to making her a friend.

Part II: The Anatomy Lesson

Zora runs into Carl Thomas. She had mistakenly taken Carl's disc player at a concert. Now they meet again at the college swimming pool. Zora is taken by Carl's attention. Later, Zora meets with Jack French, the dean of the Humanities Department. Zora subtly blackmails French into getting her into Claire Malcolm's creative writing class. Zora tells French that she believes Claire has rejected her from the class because of the affair with her father. Zora suggests that if French does not ensure her entry in the class, she will file a complaint. Wanting to avoid publicizing this scandal, French blackmails Claire, in turn, into accepting Zora. French threatens to stop Claire's practice of accepting talented but unregistered student poets into her class.

Meanwhile, Kiki visits Carlene Kipps, and they enjoy one another's company. They discuss feminism. Carlene is very conservative and believes her role is to take care of her husband and children. Kiki thinks more in terms of what she wants, personally, out of life.

Later, Claire takes her poetry class to a coffee shop to listen to local performers. Carl, Zora's friend, performs that night and wins over the crowd. Claire invites Carl to attend her writing classes.

Part III: On Beauty and Being Wrong

This section opens with Carlene Kipps's funeral. After the funeral, Howard Belsey strays from the crowd at the Kipps house and encounters Victoria, who begs him to make love to her, which he does. Back in school, Howard tries his best to stay away from her.

Zora, in the meantime, falls for Carl. She becomes entrenched in fighting for Carl's right to attend Claire's creative writing classes, even though Carl is not a registered student. For her effort, Zora believes Carl should feel indebted to her and is stunned when she discovers him in bed with Victoria. When pushed into a corner, Carl claims the Belseys and the Kippses are all hypocrites. He insinuates that Victoria was taken advantage of by Howard Belsey and tells Zora that Monty Kipps has done the same to Chantelle, another student.

The next day, Kiki Belsey finds a stolen painting under Levi's bed. In the middle of grilling the young boy about how it got there, they find a note written by Mrs. Kipps, stating that the painting was intended to go to Kiki. Though this matter is not fully developed, readers learn later that Kiki has moved out, has gotten her own apartment, and seems to be having an easy time with money. (The painting was said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Howard is left alone and is suffering.  However, in the concluding scene, while Howard stumbles through a speech in Boston, he eyes Kiki sitting in the audience, smiling at him.

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