Literary Wives: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Today’s book for the Literary Wives book club is Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2006. The book’s description promises “a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people’s deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.” Sadly enough, I can’t say that I found anything funny in this book. And I think there was too much going on for it to be a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, or the intersections of the personal and political.

The book did present an honest look at people’s deceptions, and that aspect of it I liked. Howard and Kiki have been married for 30 years, and their three children are fairly independent at this point. I assumed that they were happy in their family life, at least until Howard cheats on his wife. I thought the way Smith treated this “incident” and its aftermath was interesting and, indeed, honest. It is only natural that something like this would affect each member of a family differently, and I got a good idea of what each was going through. My favorite part of the book was actually that quick moment when Kiki realizes exactly who Howard was cheating on her with:

“Too quickly, Claire removed her hand from Howard’s body. But Kiki wasn’t looking at Claire; she was looking at Howard. You’re married to someone for thirty years: you know their face like you know your own name. It was so quick and yet so absolute—the deception was over. Howard realized it at once, but how could Claire pick up on that tiny piece of tight skin on the left side of his wife’s mouth, or know what it meant? In her innocence, thinking she was rescuing the situation, Claire enclosed both of Kiki’s hands in her own. (…)

Claire had already taken a few steps towards Monty. Kiki joined her, but then paused and came back towards Howard and spoke in his ear. Her voice was shaky, but her grip on his wrist was not. She said one name and put a disbelieving question mark at the end of it. Howard felt his stomach fall away.”

There are so many astute observations in this one scene (much of which I had to leave out because it would have been too long otherwise)! I actually reread this part of the book several times, and I enjoyed it each time I came back to it—inasmuch as one can enjoy such a moment of shame and humiliation. How I wish that Smith had focused on this moment and its aftermath throughout the rest of the book. This one family, on the brink of falling apart, would have had plenty to offer, because not only do they have to deal with Howard’s infidelity, they also have to deal with the fact that they are a mixed-race family, which even in the liberal Boston suburb they live in presents more trouble than it should.

Further, Kiki is a very strong character. I cheered for her when she gave her husband his more-than-deserved dressing-down:

“‘You think there’s some great philosophical I-don’t-fucking-know-what because you can’t keep your dick in your pants? You’re not Rembrandt, Howard. And don’t kid yourself: honey, I look at boys all the time—all the time. I see pretty boys every day of the week, and I think about their cocks, and what they would look like butt naked –’
‘You’re being really vulgar now.’
‘But I’m an adult, Howard. And I’ve chosen my life. I thought you had too. But you’re still running after pussy, apparently.'”

Sigh! Kiki had so much potential, but I didn’t feel that she was ever fully realized. Similarly, I felt that Howard and the kids were never fully realized. I never felt like I ever really got to know any of them, and that’s a shame. Instead, the book felt cluttered with a myriad of other characters, many of which never made more than a passing appearance and thus were unnecessary in my opinion.

First and foremost, there is the Kipps family, in many respects the opposite of the Belseys. Howard and Monty Kipps are professional rivals and on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Kiki and Carlene Kipps have different ideas about what it means to be a wife and mother, yet they are nevertheless drawn to each other. The kids…, well, there’s a whole mess going on involving the kids of the two families. For a long time, I thought the Kipps were there as the counterpart to the Belseys, but somehow they kept receding into the background, even though they were the most important secondary characters.

Rather than see a to me pointless interaction between Harold and his father, I would have liked to know what Monty felt when he realized his wife decided not to tell him she was terminally ill. Rather than wasting time on one of Harold’s students working up the nerve to maybe say something in his class, I would have liked to know a little more about Kiki’s feelings. I think this is my main problem with the book: Too many times, I wondered why a certain character, incident, action, and even thought was included, when some questions that I found essential remained unanswered.

As to what this book says about wives or about the experience of being a wife… I think the one aspect that becomes clear is that even after 30 years, when one can know a spouse’s thoughts just by looking at a facial expression, there’s the danger that one doesn’t know the other person at all anymore. It’s not really an uplifting thought, is it?!

Well, Smith has 3 other books that have been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, so I will read more of her eventually. But I’ll need a little time before I turn to her again.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!



  1. I’m reminded of how movie-adaptations of books often make me feel when you talked about how you felt about things that were included and things that were left out in this book. It’s so frustrating when extra things are added in and the parts you love are cut!

  2. I still really want this group to read The Dangerous Husband by Jane Shapiro. I think it says a lot about being married in a serious way, but it’s super fricken funny, too. I agree with you, TJ: no part of On Beauty is funny.

  3. Sorry this book did not work for you. I have read a few chapters of On Beauty and it did not work well for me either. I want to read the book some day. But don’t know when. Zadie seems to be a bit slow for my tastes even though her writing and character sketches are very good.

  4. I really relate to what you’re saying about not realizing potential. I feel this way about all of her books (that I’ve read). There is always so much in them that could be great but it never really gets to that point (for me).

    As for what it says about being married: YIKES.

  5. I’m sorry this book didn’t quite work for you. It’s actually my favourite of her novels, but it has divided readers (at least that’s my understanding based on the reviews I’ve seen over the years). That’s a great quote about Claire, Howard and Kiki – very telling.

    • Yes, I have the impression as well that opinions are very divided. There’s no question that it’s well written; I just found it too cluttered with characters. I think that irritated me more than usual because I never truly felt close to any of them.

      • I don’t think I’ve ever read the book, but I’m familiar with story from the Merchant-Ivory film. You’re right, I suspect that would have an impact on readers’ responses.

      • There were these moments in Howard’s End and On Beauty that would line up damn-near perfectly, but then a lot of what Smith writes takes liberty with the plot in a way that didn’t seem fitting to me. I also wonder why she chose Howard’s End. Perhaps simply because it’s a British classic.

  6. I can’t decide whether the characters aren’t fully realized or whether they’re just not likeable. I think I liked the book overall more than you did. It seemed to me to be such an honest account of ordinary lives. Including all those secondary characters that we don’t see much of. I liked them anyway, because there are many of those in real life – people in our lives who we don’t know well, or who we only ever see once or twice. But I do agree that there is way too much going on in the book to talk about properly without writing a book! I can also see myself being more impatient with it if I had been reading it in a hurry.

    • I didn’t find anyone particularly likeable, but that didn’t bother me. It took me a long time to read the book (because of time constraints), and I thought about the characters a lot during that time. That’s usually a plus. And I don’t mind a lot of characters, if they are there to serve a purpose. I just felt that a lot of times we got a glimpse at something that was then not further developed. I would have loved to know more about what Kiki was thinking after her talk with Monty Kipps, for example. I think the realistic portrayal of the mundane in everyday life is a strong point in this book; I just didn’t see the point of it all. If you asked me why Smith told this story, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

      • I wouldn’t be able to either, except maybe something about the messiness of life?

        Something that bothered me… I know the kids are older, but it hurt me that they knew about what their father did. Am I being over-protective and unrealistic?

      • I’m glad you mentioned that! I was surprised by that as well. It wasn’t so much that they knew (I think it would be hard to keep it secret for long), but the way they behaved knowing it. Levi’s portrayal especially struck me as unrealistic. Actually, I was surprised by his attitude regarding girls and sex in general (I thought he was too young to be so “worldly”), which made me think I was over-protective and unrealistic, too. 🙂

  7. I can’t decide whether the characters aren’t fully realized or whether she just spends time on certain aspects of their personalities. They actually feel more realized than many characters I’ve read about, but they are going off in all different directions.

    • I see your point, and I think it goes along with Naomi’s argument that the realistic aspect of everyday life is what’s important here, rather than how it all fits together. I just felt that everything that piqued my interest was quickly dropped, without development or apparent impact on a character, so that I never felt like I knew any of them (with the exception of Levi, maybe).
      Well, the next book will be a re-read for me, so I am curious to see if my opinion of it will change.

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