Audiobook Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Title: On Beauty
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Press
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Peter Francis James
First line: One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father.

Monty Kips and Howard Belsey are academic enemies – arguing opposing viewpoints on the artist Rembrandt. It’s not just their academic opinions that are different, however. Belsey is a liberal atheist; Kipps is a conservative Christian. Belsey is a white Englishman living in Massachusetts; Kipps is a black Trinidadian living in England.

Howard lives with his African-American wife, Kiki, and their three children – Jerome, Zora, and Levi – in the university town of Wellington, where Howard teaches art history. His oldest son, Jerome, has recently become a born-again Christian, and goes to work for the summer as an intern with Monty Kipps, to the humiliation and chagrin of his father. While there, Jerome forms an attachment with Professor Kipps’s beautiful daughter, Victoria, an attachment that neither set of parents is in favor of. When Howard brings Jerome home in a sulk, he doesn’t realize that his world is about to be turned upside down by the revelation of a secret he has been keeping – and the Kipps’s family arrival in Wellington, where Monty will give a series of guest lectures.

It is extremely hard to write a plot synopsis for a book like On Beauty. At it’s heart, it is the story of the Belsey family and how they weather a series of family calamities. It is also a beautifully written exploration of the world of academia, and it’s inherent meritocracy and the way educational opportunities can create class divisions, especially in a racially diverse city like Boston. Smith deals with so many cultural issues: race, religion, gender, poverty, infidelity, affirmative action, the importance of education.

Howard Belsey is a white Englishman who has married a black woman from Florida, and would never consider himself bigoted – and yet he has his own areas of prejudice against the uneducated and against the religious. He is unable to accept his son’s new-found faith, and Jerome is diminished in his eyes because of his desire to believe in something greater than himself.

Monty Kipps is an arrogant conservative who believes that every black man and woman should be able to find their own way in the world with out a hand up. His Christian faith is more a matter of appearances than a matter of his character, which is without mercy and full of hypocrisy.

Each of these patriarchs has a strong woman by his side. Kiki Belsey is now one of my favorite female characters – she is a big-hearted and big-bodied black woman, a woman who knows herself and speaks her mind, who loves her family with passion and yet hasn’t lost her individual identity. Carlene Kipps epitomizes the submissive Christian wife, a woman who has allowed her own opinions and needs to be subsumed by the largeness of her husband’s personality and the needs of her family. Her character made me sad – as did the character of Zora Belsey, a young woman who would do well to model herself after her mother, but instead seems determined to make her own mistakes.

On Beauty is a literary novel, one that doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional story arc of most contemporary fiction. Instead of one major crisis and then resolution, there is a series of crises, and not every one of them is resolved. There are many tangents taken along the way to explore the idea of beauty in art, the value of education no matter how it is obtained, and the joys and trials of marriage and parenting. There were many passages I would have jotted down to remember if I had been reading it in print, but I don’t regret listening to it on audio one bit. Peter Francis James has a rich, gorgeous voice, and listening to Monty Kipp’s Trinidadian accent in his musical tones was especially delightful. I will simply have to re-read it in print one day to revisit the brilliance of the writing. Highly recommended.

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23 Responses to Audiobook Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

  1. Marg
    Twitter: MargReads
    says:

    I haven’t read this, but I must confess that just the mention of it makes me think of the Vicar of Dibley book club meeting where they end up discussing Winnie the Pooh! Might be time for a rewatch.
    .-= Marg´s last blog ..Twilight- The Graphic Novel Vol 1 – Stephenie Meyer and Young Kim =-.

  2. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread
    says:

    I think I originally read the review for this book in EW and wrote it down on the never-ending list of books I want to read. Thanks for reminding me about it and bringing it to the forefront of my mind again. Great review!
    .-= Sandy´s last blog ..Mid-Year Update =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Sandy – you’re welcome! This is definitely one you would like on audio, I think – the reader has a wonderful voice.

  3. Meghan says:

    I really enjoyed this book when I read it – I think it got some criticism because it wasn’t as good as her previous book. I loved it though and it really made me think. Glad you felt the same way!
    .-= Meghan´s last blog ..June Reading Wrap-Up =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Meghan – haven’t read anything else by her – yet – so didn’t have anything to compare it to. 🙂

  4. JoAnn
    Twitter: lakesidemusing
    says:

    Great review Carrie! I’ve had this on the shelf for years and don’t know why I’ve never gotten around to reading it. It sounds wonderful.
    .-= JoAnn´s last blog ..Independence Day =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      JoAnn – it is! You should definitely take it down off the shelf soon.

  5. This sounds a lot like real life – not all crises are solved in real life either. The book sounds fantastic!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathy – exactly – it was definitely the kind of book that gives you a slice of life of this family. Good stuff.

  6. Heather @ Book Addiction
    Twitter: BookAddictHeath
    says:

    I read White Teeth recently and didn’t “get” it. Perhaps On Beauty would be more my style? I don’t know.
    .-= Heather @ Book Addiction´s last blog ..Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Heather – I have no idea what White Teeth is about, so I don’t have any idea if you would like this one better – LOL.

  7. Colleen (Books in the City)
    Twitter: booksnyc
    says:

    I have this one on my shelf – I read White Teeth years ago and loved it but haven’t gotten around to this one. You have reminded me that I need to!
    .-= Colleen (Books in the City)´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday-In My Mailbox =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Colleen – I must check out White Teeth – I don’t know that I’ve even heard of it before!

  8. Stephanie says:

    I love your review. Thanks for reminding me I need to read this one–it has been on my shelf for years!
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Book Review- My Fair Lazy =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Stephanie – you’re welcome – I hope you get a chance to read it soon!

  9. Kathleen says:

    I’ve read a lot about this author and her books but have yet to read one. I’ve heard mixed reviews of her novel, White Teeth. Your review convinces me that this book would be a better choice for my first foray into reading Smith’s books.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathleen – I’ve never read White Teeth – or any reviews of it, but I just put the audiobook on hold at my library. It will be interesting to see if I like it as much as I did this one.

  10. Melissa
    Twitter: avidreader12
    says:

    I actually read her first book, White Teeth, first and didn’t like it nearly as much. I loved On Beauty. This book is a re-telling of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, which is one of my all time favorites. I thought it was a fascinating way to take a great story and tweak it into a modern day setting. There are some major similarities between the books, but Smith makes the story her own with her unique characters.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Melissa – I’ve never actually read Howard’s End, though I did know that this book was based on it. I’m going to have to get to the original one of these days!

  11. Vasilly
    Twitter: Vasilly
    says:

    After reading your great review and all the positive things you’ve said about this book on Twitter, I know this is a book for me.