On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is a searing indictment on race, class, politics and sex in an upper middle class New England Enclave, said to be modeled after one of the ivy league schools. A lot of the things reflected in academic life reminded me of my experience in a college town. It is said to “borrow” from Howards End (E.M. Forster) as a form of tribute, but I’m kind of uneasy by the heaviness of said borrowing. It’s still a great book though.
The novel explores the life of the rich Kipps family, the working class Belsey family, and the people they interact with in a fictional New England college town not far from Boston. The patriarchs, Montague “Monty” Kipps and Howard Belsey have a run in of sorts.
The Kipps project an image of being ideal conservatives, mother Carlene stays at home and runs an efficient home, son Michael is an investment banker, daughter Victoria is a stellar student who is “growing into her looks” and of course Montague is a paragon of all that is Christian and upright. Or is he?
Jerome, Zora and Levi (the Belsey children) curse in front of their parents and call them by their first names. Parents Kiki and Howard are dealing with the excruciating residue of Howard’s infidelity. With the exception of Jerome, who seeks to deal with his anger and hurt over Howard’s affair and life with Howard in general through Christianity, all of them are adamant anti-Christians. Levi, the youngest, seeks to escape his home situation by adopting a “hood” persona and falls in with a group of Haitians and Africans he meets while in Boston and learns much more than he bargained for. I think that the book is very well written because although I found something to intensely dislike in all of the characters (except Jerome), I wanted to know what was going to happen to all of them. I was not satisfied at all with the ending. It left too many questions for me, but then again, nothing was perfect about the book. The characters weren’t perfect to begin with and they behaved in very imperfect ways during the course of the book.
This is a great book for discussion. Political definitions in this country, marriage, immigration, the so called liberation of women, sex and race are but a few of the topics that could be discussed through the experiences of the Belseys, the Kipps and their cohorts. I think it’s a really should read (check it out from the library first), but not a must read.

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