Book Review | On Beauty by Zadie Smith

on-beauty-book-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: On Beauty
: Zadie Smith
: Penguin Books
: June 4, 2005
: Adult Fiction
: 445

Zadie Smith’s third novel carries on her legacy of big books with big themes.  Howard Belsey’s infidelity sets the disintegration of his family’s happy normality in motion.  Along the way, arguments of class, politics, religion, and ethnic roots tear the Belseys further and further apart.  

The greatest lie ever told about love is that it will set you free – page 424

Smith’s narrative gives readers a chance to see every character’s perspective.  We stay intimate with their thoughts and feelings for a chapter before jumping into someone else’s head.  This technique of telling one story from many unique angles is what gives On Beauty so much depth and scope.  Although I personally find novels with switching point of view don’t hold my attention as long, other readers may enjoy this fresh style.

Kiki Belsey’s point of view resonated with me the most.  Wounded by her husband’s infidelity and the drifting apart of her children, Kiki is my favourite character.  Her ethnic roots and lack of education drive a wedge even firmer between her and academic Howard.  On Beauty claims to be a comedy, but her pain soaks the story in sadness.  Her self-awareness makes her empathetic.

He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political. She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice – page 225

Unfortunately, the pace doesn’t make this big book any easier to read.  If you’ve read Smith’s work before, you’ll be prepared for pages of detail that don’t necessarily drive plot.  She has an intelligent and articulate voice, but it sounds far from effortless.  Her distinct voice is omnipotent in the writing, sometimes slowing the momentum like a mother telling her child to hold her hand before crossing the road.  I remember being much more enchanted by this style in her 2001 debut White Teeth (a great starting place for first time Zadie Smith readers).

On Beauty is wise and emotionally intelligent.  As a godlike narrator, Smith immerses us in the diverse experiences of one family, opening wounds along the way.


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