History: Published in 2005, On Beauty addresses ethnic and cultural differences in both the U.S.A and the U.K., the nature of beauty, and the clash between liberal and conservative academic values.
Plot: On Beauty centres on the story of two families and their different, yet increasingly intertwined, lives. The Belsey family consists of university professor Howard, a white Englishman, his African-American wife Kiki, and their children Jerome, Zora and Levi, living in the fictional university town of Wellington, outside Boston. Howard's professional nemesis is Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian living in Britain with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael.
The Belsey family has always defined itself as liberal, and Howard in particular is furious when son Jerome, a newly born-again Christian, goes to work as an intern with the ultra-conservative Christian Kipps family over his summer holidays. After a failed affair with Victoria Kipps, Jerome returns home. However, the families are brought into proximity again nine months later when the Kippses move to Wellington, and Monty begins work at the university.
Carlene and Kiki become friends despite the tensions between their families. Rivalry between Monty and Howard increases as Monty challenges the liberal attitudes of the university on issues such as affirmative action. His academic success also highlights Howard's inadequacies and failure to publish a long-awaited book. Meanwhile the Belsey family is facing problems of its own, as they deal with the fallout of Howard's affair with his colleague and family friend Claire.
Zora and Levi both become friends with Carl, an African-American man of a poorer background than their own middle-class lifestyle. Zora uses him as a posterchild for her campaign to allow talented non-students in university classes. For Levi, Carl is a source of identity, as a member of a more 'authentic' black culture than Levi considers his own background to be.
Review: From the opening sentence, On Beauty parades its allegiance to E. M. Forster’s Howards End. “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” writes Zadie Smith. The rhythm of this sentence, its apparent diffidence, its refusal of any more heroic way of opening a novel, are all Forster’s, and meant to be so.
Opening Line: “One may as well begin by Jerome’s emails to his father.”
Closing Line: “Though her hands were imprecise blurs, paint heaped on paint and roiled with a brush, the rest of her skin had been expertly rendered in all it’s variety, chalky whites and lively pinks, the underlying blue of her veins, and the ever present human tint of yellow, intimated of what is to come.”
Quotes: “At the water cooler Howard was just another middle aged professor, suffering the expected midlife crisis.”
Rating: Very Good