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On Beauty Review

"Art is the Western myth with which we both console ourselves and make ourselves."

What could be more beautiful than a family? Why, the debacles of two of course! Awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction, On Beauty follows the Belsey and the Kipps families through 443 pages of shenanigans only family can forgive.

The Belsey family is made up of Howard and Kiki who are the parents of Levi, Zora and Jerome. Howard is a white Englishman and Kiki is a voluptuous African American. They've been married thirty years and have lived the last ten years in a Boston University community where Howard has been an art history professor. Kiki, once an activist, works at the local hospital.

The Kipps, an all black family from London, includes Monty and Carlene as the heads and their children Michael and Victoria. Monty is also an art history master and Howard's arch nemesis and vice versa. Circumstances lead the Kippses to the same town and same university as the Belseys where frictions arise between the men and the siblings.

The ongoing racial and art war going on between Howard and Monty is what drives a wedge between these two families. Howard is for affirmative action and Monty is not. Their battle has been in the newspapers, on the radio, in interviews and in books. Now it's on Howard's home turf; except he hasn't been given tenure yet. Only Carlene and Kiki are willing to put past differences aside and co-exist amicably.

The characters don't stop with these two families. There's the antiquated university staff, knowledge hungry students, angry Haitian street vendors, melodramatic Hip Hop writers and both talented and untalented poets. All these relationships show a definite balance of wants and needs; and haves and have nots.

Zadie Smith's character development made me want to follow these two families through their day to day lives and interactions. Now that it is over I still want more. There are a lot of characters, main and supporting but all have a purpose, even a young child protégé who's only mentioned in a page and a half. Her perspective, given by the narrator, lends to Howard's personality.

On Beauty is rich with the emotional turmoil of love, hate, deception, redemption, politics, art, racism, acceptance and of course the draw beauty has on us.

My favourite character in the book is Kiki. I love her name, I love her body and I love her personality. Kiki is resentful for having been isolated from other black people. "Everywhere we go, I'm alone in this... this sea of white." She made me laugh, she made me cry, she made me proud. She is a large beautiful woman who carries herself well despite her husband cheating on her. She uses this heartache to locate the woman she once was and to build on the woman she has become. Her self-acceptance is inspiring and she is the character who has grown the most by the end.

I've probably made this sound like quite a serious book but it was really quite light hearted and amusing. The humour of every day life and how silly people (young and old) can be is around every corner. The storyline is intense enough to peak your sense. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Penguin, 2005

Purchase On Beauty from Amazon.com.
Purchase On Beauty from Amazon.ca


M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario, Canada. If you are going to find this eclectic reader and writer anywhere it is probably at her computer. For more information visit her official website.

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