On Beauty by Zadie Smith: book review
Overview: Two academic families are at war in a college town outside Boston in the early 2000s. While the two husbands of the households – now forced to be colleagues at the university – are ideologically at odds, they largely prove to be fitting foils for one another. The various interpersonal relationships that evolve in and around the two families reveals both the best and worst humans have to offer as each family member is put under the microscope. Overall: 5
Characters: 5 This is a fantastic character study if I've ever read one. Seamlessly, a broad cast of characters that include two married couples and five children between them, as well as various friends and background characters, are brought into the fold in sharp detail. We spend time in so many characters' heads without ever getting lost. Each individual voice is maintained with a vivid, stunning clarity that doesn't waver through the entire novel. Whether it's the fifty-seven-year-old Howard or his young teenaged son or his strong-willed twenty-year-old daughter, each character is deeply understood and empathized with even as they are critiqued and explored for their very human flaws. There's something extraordinarily compelling in how Smith reveals these characters to those around them and themselves (along with the reader) as the novel unfolds. I don't want to leave this cast even after turning the last page. It's pretty amazing that a writer is able to sustain so effortlessly a large number of points of view without wavering.
Plot: 5 While this is a book heavily about people and relationships there is so much drama. Co-worker clashes, affairs, delicate marriages, family matters, Romeo and Juliet situations... The list goes on. There's enough that happens, unspooling in an utterly delightful series of reveals that the 445 pages feel justified. It was troubling to see just how many themes a book published in 2005 has overlapping with today when it comes to the disquieting turn the world is taking. As someone who was born 2 years before this book came out, I wasn't super familiar with what it was like to live in the early 2000s, and this offered some fascinating insight into that time while also giving so many relevant parallels to the present day.
Writing: 5 Zadie Smith writes beautifully. I know that's not a revelation or anything, but it shines so clearly in this novel. There were so many lines I highlighted while reading that encapsulated a feeling or little acknowledged fact of life so perfectly that it took my breath away. It's a book I definitely know I want to read again. While I knew Smith was a talented writer from reading Swing Time, this is the book that's truly made me a fan. It should be a book taught in high schools alongside the other classics. It's just that good.
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