0326 | On Beauty | Zadie Smith

0326 | On Beauty | Zadie Smith

Context: Started reading this as I prepared to go on a 320km bike ride through Western Province, PNG.


Definitely enjoyed this more than White Teeth and this is an improvement in terms of focus and character development for Smith. However, this is a novel that, for me, again, just doesn’t deliver enough to leave you feeling satisfied.

This is a novel about two families whose lives overlap because the two men are university professors with rival theories on Rembrandt. Neither are likeable characters but Howard, married to African American Kiki and living in New England, is definitely the more fleshed out. I caught glimpses of Rabbitt (and therefore distant glimpses of Babbitt).

Howard is having a mid-life crisis at 57 and nothing seems to be going right for him. In the meantime, his kids are going through crises of faith and sexuality and identity all of their own. There’s little here you haven’t seen before in contemporary literature so I’m not entirely sure what Smith is contributing.

Sure, the book’s very readable – a LOT more readable than White Teeth – but if this was meant to be a satirical commentary on beauty, it was so subtle it was lost on me. I enjoyed reading it because I enjoyed the characters and what was happening to them. But if there was something deeper I was supposed to be than entertained, it didn’t do it for me.

On the back of the book, for example, the publishers have asked three questions:

  • Why do we fall in love with the people we do?
  • Why do we visit our mistakes on our children?
  • What makes life truly beautiful?

Now these are very important questions and they are right to ask them. But if you think the novel is going to give you anything like answers to these, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed. If the post-modern novel cannot answer these questions clearly and definitively, then what on earth is their place in our discourse?

So, like White Teeth, Smith raises issues only to simply depict them. Without attempting to do more and engage with them in a way that impacts our practical realities, I’m not sure this is much more than fictional voyeurism. We all have questions like those above about life. If you’re anything like as honest as me, you really do want answers to them. Smith has let me down in this department. Good thing I don’t rely on her alone!


One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father:


Though her hands were imprecise blurs, paint heaped on paint and roiled with the brush, the rest of her skin had been expertly rendered in all its variety – chalky whites and lively pinks, the underlying blue of her veins and the ever present human hint of yellow, intimation of what is to come.


0326 | On Beauty | Smith | 56% | Okay

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement Read more about how I come up with my ratings

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  1. I agree with your overall rating of this book, John.
    I felt that I could not believe in Zadie’s characters. I felt they were two-dimensional and the dialogue did not ring true for me. I had the overwhelming sense of a daisy-chain cutout that will repeat itself no matter how many times you unfold the pages.
    Yours is still the blog formation I aspire to.
    One day, when I mature.
    Really, the lay-out of your blog is enviable.
    — Cip

    1. Hey Cip… great to hear from you after so long. Thanks for the comment. It’s not layout that counts but content and your blog rocks for content. Keep that content coming and don’t get sidetracked into making less look like more!

  2. What a gracious comment about my comment. Thank you.
    Still — it is not only the way your blog looks but also the content that always smacks me as excellent!
    I particularly love the pictures of the books along with background scenes of where they were read, plus that spider-webby grid thing that captures the percentage rating of the book. As Martin Amis might put it, that is nothing less than “brill”.
    — Cip.

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