Setting

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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...

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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

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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 to him, has already spontaneously broken up, and the seriocomic scenes of misunderstanding and miscommunication further deepen the ill will between the patresfamilias.

After Howard has had a few months to recover from his embarrassment, the battle between him and Kipps is again joined when Kipps arrives at Wellington College, Howard’s university, and proposes a course of lectures titled “Taking the Liberal out of the Liberal Arts.” Howard wants to ban or at least vet these lectures because Kipps’s published record of homophobic pronouncements, anti-equal-opportunity stances, and antifeminist positions are tantamount, in Howard’s view, to hate speech. Kipps, however, stands his ground on the principle of free speech. The two battle it out at a mock-heroic faculty meeting held, ironically, in an auditorium named after the speechless Helen Keller.

A deeper irony is that while these two men argue about principles, the events transpiring in the novel show them to be rank hypocrites: Howard’s lofty idealism is undercut by his uncontrollable sexual indiscretions (which bear resemblance to those of several prominent liberals in American government), and Kipps’s principled tone is undermined by his bad faith regarding his wife’s dying wishes, his cupidity, and his sexual harassment. On balance, both the liberal and the conservative are shown to be deeply flawed, though Belsey is perhaps more sympathetic (or pitiful) because he is merely weak, whereas Kipps is cold and calculating.

Another of the novel’s major themes is race. Smith does not rehearse the usual black-white take on race; both of the feuding families are black. Rather, the novel examines race through the lens of class. Where this becomes clearest is in the characters of the younger Belsey siblings. Levi Belsey, the high-school-age younger son, enjoys all the comforts and advantages of a middle-class suburban African American upbringing. Levi is also in youthful revolt. He has set his mind to being cool, hip, and street smart. His inspiration is the rap and hip-hop that is constantly piped into his head by his omnipresent iPod.

To add authenticity to his image, Levi falls in with a group of down-and-out Haitians, street venders who hawk illegal knockoffs of designer accessories on Boston sidewalks. Levi is teamed up with Chouchou, a spectacularly scarred and abuse-hardened Haitian refugee who maintains his distance even as Levi attempts to get close to him. Eventually Levi does visit Chouchou’s pad in the squalid, verminous depths of the ghetto. Overwhelmed, Levi realizes that he has glamorized and romanticized black poverty and that he (privileged as he has been) cannot genuinely negotiate the chasm of class difference between himself and Chouchou.

Zora Belsey (whose name is one of On Beauty’s several allusions to Zora Neale Hurston) is the college-age daughter who becomes sexually attracted to Carl, a toothsome black ghetto youth who does spoken-word gigs on the street and at open-mike nights. Pygmalion-like Zora takes him in hand and makes him her project. First, she wangles a rare seat for him as a nondegree auditor in her creative writing course. Then she maneuvers him into a music librarian’s position in the Black Studies department. Unfortunately, Zora’s feelings are not reciprocated by Carl. He is attracted to Victoria Kipps instead. When Zora reproaches him for his ingratitude, he bitterly accuses her of being excessively proprietary and controlling, and he quits the campus entirely: “People like me are just toys to people like you. . . . I’m just some experiment for you to play with. You people aren’t even black any more . . . don’t know what you are. . . . I can’t do this no more.”

The third major theme of this novel is a womanist teleology, an exploration of the purposiveness of women’s lives. To elaborate this theme, Smith provides a spectrum of individual female characters ranging from Monique (the Belseys’ Haitian maid) to Kiki Belsey (her employer). Of middling significance are a younger generation of women represented by the Belsey and Kipps daughters. Zora Belsey is the type of woman who exploits the politics of every situation, who finagles and contrives and cajoles, who takes control and assumes power,. Her coeval, Victoria Kipps, possesses all the physical allure of a Cleopatra and all the moral sensibility of a slut of Babylonafter she has slept with a young man, she seduces his father on the night of her own mother’s funeral.

The major women characters are the matresfamilias Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps. Kiki was a blooming, spirited black woman from Florida (Zora Neale Hurston’s state) who separated herself from her native African American community when she married her white English husband and settled in the suburbs. As if to emphasize this loss of spirit, Smith has this character weighing in at 250 pounds. After thirty years of marriage, raising three children, and working as a hospital administrator, Kiki discovers that her husband has cheated on her with their longtime friend, his colleague Claire Malcolm. In addition, he has had sex with an eighteen-year-old, currently his student.

As her life begins to crumble about her, there enters into it Carlene Kipps. They become friends in short order. Almost mystically they connect. (“Only connect” had been Forster’s motto in Howards End.) Carlene, even more exclusively than Kiki, has devoted her life to her marriage and her family, whose members are a disappointment in terms of their values and their integrity, despite all of their outward trappings of success and recognition. Like Kiki’s obesity, the symptom of Carlene’s life disappointment manifests itself bodilybut invisiblyin the form of a cancer which she keeps hidden even from her own family. In contrast to their warring husbands, these two women connect in friendship during an afternoon of tea and pie. When Carlene dies, she wills a precious Haitian painting to her new friend, an act that will expose the greed and bad faith of the conservative Kipps family as well as the ineffectual and wrongheaded idealism latent in the liberal Belsey family.

Thus in the midst of a world fraught with misunderstanding and anger, chaos and meaninglessness, promiscuity and hypocrisy (conditions all too reminiscent of Forster’s panic and emptiness), Smith shows her readers that there is one simply amazing saving gracefriendship. For Smith, friendship is a grace as beautiful and true and strong as it had been for Forsterwho had proclaimed on the eve of World War II that if he had to choose between his country and his friend, he hoped that he would have the guts to choose his friend. In the end, it is of this core liberal, humanistic truth that Smith’s novel beautifully and importantly reminds its readers.

Bibliography

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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 <http://www.slate.com/id/2126224/>. 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.

Bibliography

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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, no. 12 (September 19, 2005): 62.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 30 (August 1, 2005): 44.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 2, 2005, pp. 10-11.

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