8.22.2011

On Beauty by Zadie Smith


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, clich├ęs, 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

18 comments:

  1. I love reading books together, so this sounds like a great idea!

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  2. Trisha, This set is perfect if you like reading books together! Really they are terrific complements.

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  3. I like Zadie Smith (have you read White Teeth?) and had been considering reading this one. I will follow Greg's (and yours) advice and read Howard's End first.

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  4. I need to read Howard's End, I guess. I have White Teeth and her recent collection of essays, but they're just hangin' on the shelf, waiting to be read one of these days.

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  5. we read Howard's End and On Beauty as a 'pair' in one of my Modern Brit Lit courses, and it was very helpful to have read Forster first. However I had the opposite response, I liked Forster much better.

    I need to try Smith's White Teeth, heard that was a really good one, too.

    ~L (omphaloskepsis)

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  6. I read Howard's End, I think, in college, but I don't really remember it. On Beauty has been on my to-read list since it came out. I had forgotten that it is an academic novel, which makes me want to read it even more. Thanks for the review.

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  7. Glad you enjoyed this! You reviewed it really well - brought back some great memories about these great characters and their often contentious interactions with each other. It'd be really interesting to re-read now, six years after I read it the first time to see how my vantage point on the "culture wars" has changed, and how that changes the understanding of On Beauty. Anyway...

    Only connect! The prose and the passion... ;)

    Thanks for the mentions, too!

    (And, for the love of God, Zadie, publish a new novel!)

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  8. I will read this one. Thanks for the advice.

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  9. Sam, Have not read White Teeth but since I loved this one so much, I'm sure I will eventually.

    Christine, You could always read White Teeth first. That was her first novel (published when she was 24) so if you are anal about that kind of thing you could start with that one.

    comtemplatrix, That is interesting. I supposed to each their own. I've also found that reading certain classics in a classroom/discussion setting helps me to appreciate the nuances more than when I read them on my own.

    LBC, You should read On Beauty then and perhaps revisit Howards End before you do - even if it's briefly.

    Greg, I did enjoy it very much and thanks again for filling me in on the Howards End thing! And I'm with you on Smith... what is the holdup?

    eclectic, Good!

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  10. Good review. One of your robust one, I like it. I'm still approaching Zadie Smith with caution, like a UFO, but I'm getting there. Now I'm one step closer, thanks to you.

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  11. I love tandem readings too -- I didn't realize this was a kind of reworking of Howards End -- I'm adding this to my winter queue!

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  12. Wow, what an intriguing quote. I've heard of this book but I've never been much inclined to read it - I think because this super Hipster girl I know loved it so I've kind of put it in the Hipster category in my brain, haha. After reading that quote though, I'm completely intrigued.

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  13. hahaha you're hardcore, Ingrid!

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  14. Ben, Oh thanks! And if it tells you anything, Greg loves the Zadie, so you might too. Try her out! Nothing to be afraid of.

    Audra, What other tandem readings have you done? This was my first.

    IngridLola, Haha that's funny. I don't think it's geared toward hipsters all that much. Maybe she just really like it. Also, You are hardcore! :)

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  15. I think my favorite thing about this book was seeing both the parallels and differences between the two books. Smith walked a thin line, but managed to make it work really well.

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  16. I loved this book! Glad you read it and enjoyed it! Definitely read White Teeth - it is excellent! Her sophomore book, The Autograph Man isn't as good, so if you pass on that one, you won't be missing out.

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