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28 Mar 2011

On Beauty



Howard Belsey is an Englishman abroad, an academic teaching in Wellington, a college town in New England. Married young, thirty years later he is struggling to revive his love for his African American wife Kiki. Meanwhile, his three teenage children— Jerome, Zora and Levi—are each seeking the passions, ideals and commitments that will guide them through their own lives.

I just love how varied we are with our reading tastes. Zadie Smith has fans. I actually understand why - she's entertaining and smart. In my late teens I think I would have enjoyed this for what it is. Right now though, Smith and I don't gel. I enjoy being entertained, but I also want to read a well-constructed story, believable (if it's meant to be realism), tight prose, emotional insight, and I want to either love or hate the characters.

On Beauty has moments of dazzle, where Smith manages to pull together a string of words that arrow into human emotion and motivation. She also grapples admirably with social issues. Her ear for voice is sharp. Unfortunately, these remain moments.

He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political. She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.

Mostly, she gave me skeletal characters. None stirred an emotion stronger in me than annoyance or mild curiosity. The uninteresting plot was carried along by large coincidences. The beauty theme was butter-spread thin. The intellectual interjections became ostentatious. So I can't even claim it was entertaining to me.

On a few occasions, one of the characters makes a point that other people's failings/behaviours were dull in their obviousness. That's On Beauty in a nutshell - predictable, obvious, clichéd. I can understand many like it as a fun read, but how this won the Orange Prize and is listed in the 1001 Must Reads is beyond me.

I didn't mind White Teeth. Though I had felt short-changed after a super beginning, I was glad I'd read it. On Beauty was tedious and I only finished it because my curiosity demands to know how authors will wrap things up and/or if they will redeem themselves. In this case, the wrap up was tedious and no, no redemption.


  1. I got this at a thrift store the other day and was really anticipating getting into it because I've heard such great reviews. I'll keep your review in mind, because, like you, I too, love all the things you described in a novel. I still plan to read it; maybe we can swap notes later.

  2. I have a copy of this sitting on my shelf. I'm sorry to hear you didn't like it. Knowing that, it will probably sit a little longer on my shelf. I too have been disappointed with some of the 1001 Books list.

  3. To be fair on the novel, I ought to have said it's a 2-star book, imho. It isn't terrible. But as I finished it feeling like I wasted my time, it was 1 star for me.

  4. Sorry you were not thrilled with this one. I had problems as well, and it ended up being one I never finished a few years ago.

  5. I gave up on On Beauty after about a hundred pages. I wanted to like it, but I couldn't find anything to keep me interested. After reading your review I'm glad I didn't waste any more time on it.

  6. I love your review. I have read this and loved it although I thought was tedious just as you've said. Do you think I would enjoy White Teeth more?

  7. So this is where you are at:-) Although I still do love Joy Pockets on HM. I actually am looking for a fiction novel right now, but browsing through your recent reviews, I think they are all too serious for me. I need something escapist, to complement all the non-fiction I am usually reading...I will browse through the 1001 list, but probably too literary huh? This one definitely doesn't fit the bill, if it's not going to take hold emotionally...But glad to find you here, in any case! - Lisa

  8. Diane and Rayna, I was so close to giving up on it on a few occasions.

    Welcome Geosi Reads. Glad you enjoyed the novel. If so, I imagine you would like WT as well.

    Hey Lisa! Yes, mostly literary reads on that list.

  9. Completely agree. I was not at all fond of this book. The only part I enjoyed - and the book is not fresh in my mind - was the part set in the record store. I thought that was well-written.

  10. Wonderful review, Monica! Sorry to know that you didn't like 'On Beauty' much. I read it a few years back for book club. I thought the title was a bit pretentious, and the story didn't really click for me, but I loved Zadie Smith's prose and I read the book just for that. I later read one of Smith's collection of essays and loved that too. I loved that passage you have quoted from the book on a rose.

    I love the new look of your blog :)

  11. I've read White Teeth a couple times but have been hesitant to read anything else by Smith. Like you write, I think White Teeth starts well and peters off towards the end, and I haven't heard anything so positive about her other books that I've thought NOT picking them up is a mistake. I kind of wish your review changed my mind on this (as mixed as my feelings on WT are, I do like the book), but...well, plenty of other authors to read.

    -- ellen

  12. I've been meaning to pop over and read this review ever since you linked to it in our GoodReads discussion. I love the quote you chose here. Once you've read that, you've pretty much mastered their entire relationship, don't you think?

    Have you read Howards End? I read it after this, thinking it would be the better of the two... wrong. This book is at least admirable for taking the premise of Howards End and making it passably readable. Not anxious to try any more Forster after that one. ;)