Zadie Smith’s third novel On Beauty is a homage to EM Forster’s classic Howard’s End. Like the starkly different families in Forster’s novel who eventually become increasingly linked, the two families in On Beauty find their lives unexpectedly colliding.
One of the two families consists of university professor Howard Belsey, who is white and English, his African American wife Kiki, and their three children, who live in the fictional town of Wellington. The second family comprises Howard’s nemesis Monty Kipps, his wife Carlene, and their two children, who live in the UK.
Howard is furious when one of his sons, Jerome, who is a born-again Christian, starts to intern with Monty. After Jerome and Monty’s daughter Victoria split up, he returns home. However, nine months later, the Kipps family moves to Wellington, leading to an intensified rivalry between Howard and Monty, and an unlikely friendship between Carlene and Kiki.
Meanwhile, Howard and Kiki’s other two children, Zora and Levi, befriend a working class black man named Carl. Zora uses him as the face of her campaign to let non-students audit classes at the university, while Levi looks upon Carl as a more authentic person of colour than himself.
As a New York Times review says: “On Beauty is that rare comic novel about the divisive cultural politics of the new century likely to amuse readers on the right as much as those on the left. (Not that they’ll necessarily be laughing in the same places.)”
The novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker award, and Smith won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 for it.
Published in 2005.