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On Beauty

Zadie Smith
The Belseys have always claimed to be liberal and atheist, but when their eldest son Jerome goes to work as an intern in England with his father Howard’s enemy the, ultra-conservative Christian Monty Kipps, there are bound to be a few mishaps. When Jerome finally returns home, the Kipps in turn move to Wellington, the town where the Belseys live. Working at the same university, Howard and Monty develop a rivalry, while their wives become friends. The novel hinges on the mirror effects and the interactions between the two families. Their relationship is a complex one which includes friendship, rivalry, lust and envy. Each family will have problems to solve, both personal and professional.

"Now, listen to this next bit carefully: in the morning the whole Kipps family have breakfast together and a conversation together and then get into a car together (are you taking notes?) - I know, I know - not easy to get your head around. I never met a family who wanted to spend so much time with each other."
(Extract from Jerome's email sent to his father, p.5)


The novel is a wonderful analysis of family life in present American society. Zadie Smith explores all facets of life with a lot of humor and bitter-sweet irony. She pays particular attention to the dialogues, which are always lively and life-like. She manages to capture "ghetto" slang, as in the following sentence: " 'He don't do no wilding out, he goes no crunk, no hyphy, no East Coast vibe to test what be happening on the West Coast', [Levi] said, thus happily rending himself incomprehensible both to his siblings and 99.9 per cent of the world's population" (p.238). There are many major characters in the novel, and each of them has a different tone and vocabulary.

The novel deals with professional problems as well as with the sentimental, social and sexual dimensions of life. It invites the reader to think about marriage and adultery, love and trust, and, of course, beauty. The author deconstructs the idealistic image of family life by showing that each family and each individual has its dark side. Her approach is therefore highly realistic.

On Beauty is interesting from a cultural point of view as well, as it gives us a hint of what American modern society is like. Some characters represent modern American archetypes: Levi, the younger son, is representative of the middle-class young black man who tries to imitate the ghetto culture (through the way he speaks and the music he listens to).Carl, a poor but brilliant Afro-American is the very stereotype of the gifted young man who tries to escape his background. Jerome, the eldest son, stands for the new rise of religion in America: he is a "born-again". Howard is the recognized academic with liberal opinions. Thus the characters may seem a bit "cliché"; and yet Zadie Smith uses these American stereotypes with great subtlety.

On Beauty also addresses contemporary matters, and therefore offers a good view of American society. It is for instance a reflection upon identity, a question which is central in the US: Levi does not assume his belonging to the middle-class, and looks for an "authentic" black identity. Multiculturalism is among the main topics of the novel. What is more, the touchy question of affirmative action is one of the main oppositions between Howard and Monty. There is also a reflection about women in the book, as the feminine characters struggle with the various and competing demands of modern society (they should be loving mothers, gifted lovers, brilliant businesswomen...). The author reflects upon the achievements of feminism ("[Claire]could see no serious change: [the girls were] still starving themselves, still reading women's magazine that explicitly hate women, still faking their orgasms with men they dislike, still lying to everybody about everything" p.227)

To put it in a nutshell, On Beauty is a moving as well as an enriching story. It is a chronicle at different scales: the chronicle of a family, of a country and of a time. The great qualities of this novel have been widely acknowledged, as it was listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, and as it won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006.

Claire Poinsot
mai 2008

Zadie Smith, On Beauty. Hamish Hamilton (London), 2005. 446p.

 
 
mise à jour le 10 mars 2009
Créé le 7 mai 2008
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues