I bought this novel at the end of spring without knowing much about Zadie Smith or her novels. I knew On Beauty had been shortlisted for the Booker and won the Orange Prize, but aside from that I didn't know what to expect. After I posted about my book purchase back in April, Greg from The New Dork Review of Books commented that "On Beauty is very good, but it's even better if you have a working knowledge of Howards End by E. M. Forster." Well, I don't typically ignore that sort of advice, especially when it comes from someone whose literary taste I trust. So I went out and bought Howards End and then I read it aaaand while I won't go down in my top ten list of classics, I could not be happier that I listened to Greg because my understanding of Howards End contributed quite a bit to my understanding of On Beauty. Not only that, but Smith's reworking of the classic novel left me in awe.
So the first thing I will tell you is if you want to read this book you should really take Greg's advice as well and read Howards End. The two books are similar in themes and structure, but then again they are really very different. Forster's novel examines two interconnected families who exist in the Edwardian era; a time when the class system in England was so disordered that social upheaval ensued. Smith's work examines a different pair of conflicting and interconnected modern families who hold opposing values but exist under the same community, that of the fictional Wellington college. While the reworked implications of Smith's novel are anything but subtle, they function in a unique and contemporary way that leaves much to think about.
Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on. Intelligent humans make those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful...and decide what you want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.At its heart, On Beauty examines the cultural implications of modern-day diversity as well as the heavy complications that result from human emotions. Smith identifies and explores contemporary feminist anxieties and while she doesn't offer any concrete solutions, she does imply its future is hopeful. We are introduced to vivid characters, each with a distinct voice that Smith conveys in a humorous and compassionate tone. Above all, Smith explores our ever dynamic and diverse ideologies in regards to politics, family life and our connections with others. Highly recommended.
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton ,2005