Books Read in 2021 – On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Genre: Black fiction, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of different viewpoints, chronological

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Belseys and the Kipps don’t get on. They are both art scholars, both study Rembrandt and Monty Kipps got his book out first. When Jerome Belsey falls for Victoria (Vee) Kipps, the families are thrown together again and again. Howard Belsey has marriage trouble. His wife, Kiki, is also dissatisfied. Carlene Kipps is dying. The various offspring of the two families have various personal issues including finding an authentic identity (Levi) and championing the cause of academia (Zora). All of this is played out on the campus of Wellington University.

Time on shelf: I inherited this when my husband’s aunt died in 2014. In the meantime I read Swing Time which I didn’t really like and this put me off going back to Smith. (I had previously read White Teeth and The Autograph Man.)

I went back and forth on how to rate this one. It is well written (4 stars) and it covers issues of identity successfully (4 stars) but the characters didn’t grab me (3 stars) and the plot was slow and didn’t pull me in (3 stars). It was a bit of a slog at times. When I got to the end, all I felt was relief that it was over.

There can be no doubt that Smith can turn a phrase. This is very well written. It is also ambitious. It is based on Howard’s End by E. M. Forster which is not a book I’ve read. I have seen the film though and once I realised, it made sense. Very different families. A gift betrothed but not delivered. And, in fact, it made me feel a lot like when I have read Forster – a little like I must have missed a joke or maybe I’m just not quite clever enough to get it.

Part of the problem is that the characters weren’t very interesting to me – in fact, they were almost stereotypes. Howard Belsey is a white professor, married to a black woman who is not as thin as she used to be. He is floundering in his career and has recently had an affair with a fellow lecturer. He is terrible with technology. He ends up sleeping with Monty’s daughter. This seems a little like it could be a character arc in a John Updike novel. Kiki is little more than her race and her weight. Monty Kipps is a typical right wing, conservative Christian. And so on.

Similarly, the plot wasn’t particularly compelling. In fact, it often felt like the most interesting things happened off-page. I enjoyed the bequeathing of a painting by Carlene to Kiki which Monty tried to hide but even then, the court case that ensues happens elsewhere. Also, as I have previously mentioned. I’m not a massive fan of posh people or campus tales so this was on a loser from the start. I’m not sorry I read it but I’m not sure that I’ll read anymore Smith novels.

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