Book Review: “On Beauty” (2005) by Zadie Smith

"Belle" Portraits - 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

Gugu Mbatha-Raw.


It should be obvious from the first line that this novel is inspired by a love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.

So let’s talk about E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), one of the last great “condition of England” novels. In this genre, the writer draws a picture of English society and its many problems, often showing that change is necessary for a better future. In this book, Forster examines class relations in particular and argues that the strict social hierarchy of the Victorian age has no place in the modern world. He is critical of Edwardian society, but also seems hopeful that these issues can be resolved and that people will be able to find a way to connect despite their differences.

In On Beauty, Zadie Smith takes the plot of Howards End into the twenty-first century. There are still two families, one liberal and one conservative, who find their fates intertwined by a sudden engagement. There is still a young man looking to climb up the social ladder and, like Forster, Smith asks the reader to rethink the meaning of identity in a multicultural world. However, she adds an extra dimension, one that makes this novel instantly relevant to today’s society: race.

In Forster’s England, a person would lead a life predestined by who their parents were and how much money they had. Class defined your place in society and could restrict your options and ambitions in a major way, so people had to find a way to reconcile their personal desires with what society allowed them to do. Howards End is all about dissatisfaction, being frustrated by the limits society imposes on you, and the knowledge that you cannot get past them no matter how hard you try. The characters do not always want to admit it, but in the end, money matters.

On Beauty tells the story of a family living in Wellington, an idyllic college town in the United States. In terms of wealth, they are in the upper classes of society. However, they encounter a different obstacle: race. Each family member approaches the issue in their own way and they all find locked doors around every turn. As a writer, Zadie Smith has a particular gift for character and dialogue. Her protagonists have distinctive voices, quirks, and habits, and she paints them in loving detail.

The mother of the family, Kiki, is the only black woman wherever she goes and as a result, she is always deeply aware of how people perceive her. She keeps catching glances of how she looks to others and it is not always pleasant. Carrying food makes her look like “a maid in an old movie” and her large bosom gives her an identity she never asked for: “sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting.” At one point, she muses how young white men find her funny because she’s “the Aunt Jemina on the cookie boxes of their childhoods, the pair of thick ankles Tom and Jerry played around.” Kiki knows how the game is played and she finds herself cast in a role she is not comfortable with. Around her husband’s colleagues, she plays up the ‘large black woman’ part and moves “her head from side to side in a manner she understood white people enjoyed.”

And then her (white) husband, Howard, cheats on her with a white woman. He avoids anything that makes him uncomfortable by deflecting emotional discussions, romanticising the past until it is to his liking, and analysing dangerous ideas away. He especially “disliked and feared conversation with his children that concerned race” and repeatedly tells them they’re just being paranoid.

The youngest son, Levi, does not feel at home in their neighbourhood. Since he is a young black man in a hoodie, his neighbours regularly think he is a robber and stare at him as he walks down the street. At one point, Levi considers making a T-shirt that says “I am not going to rape you.” In an attempt to find people who will accept him, he immerses himself in street culture and rap music. When he starts using street slang, his sister Zora chews him out for it, calling his appropriation of the language grotesque. At his job, his boss yells at him:

I know where you’re from. Those kids don’t know shit, but I know. They nice suburban kids. They think anyone in a pair of baggy jeans is a gangsta. But you can’t fool me. I know where you pretend to be from, [...] Because that’s where I’m from [...].

Like in Howards End, it seems that everything is falling apart for these characters – but it is actually the beginning of something new, something different. Howard’s marriage and academic reputation are in danger, but he is also forced to open up and face his repressed emotions. Kiki has been betrayed, but gains independence and a new sense of self-worth. Jerome, the oldest son, has his heart broken, but finds a renewed affection for his family and home town.

Change may be terrifying and there are still many, many obstacles to overcome, but it’s a brave new world.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: “On Beauty” (2005) by Zadie Smith

  • March 29, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    “Howards End” was (and still is) famous – or should I say infamous? – in the English Language and Culture class of 2012 at my university for its ability to make literally every single student go “uuuuuuuuuugh, get on with it!”. The professor told us that it was on the list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, but most of us said that we preferred death-by-bookcase to reading this story. Or we would have, if more than a handful of us had actually managed to get to the ending.

    It has been a few years since we were forced to read it, though, and your review did pique my interest for the actual book that it’s about. Perhaps I should read “On Beauty” and see if I feel inclined to give “Howards End” another try afterwards. I recently dusted off a few of the books I read for my BA English lit classes, with the intention of reading them again (or trying to actually finish them for the first time *shakes fist at “The Sound and the Fury”*), and I skipped “Howards End” because UGH, but perhaps it deserves a second chance.

    • March 29, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      Fun fact: I love E.M. Forster’s work, but Howards End bored me to tears (as did the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation). I’ve been wondering if I should reread it as well, but really, I’d much rather use that time to reread A Room With A View.

      I enjoyed On Beauty much more!


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