On Beauty: La belle dame sans foi ni espoir

Zadie Smith writes beautifully. For a retelling of an old favorite (Howard’s End), On Beauty made me pull two almost all-nighters as I had to read just one more page. Despite gravely depleting my already small reserves of faith in the human race, this book has nevertheless been one of the most enjoyable reads of this year.

Reading ‘On Beauty’ is like watching whole bunch of coins tossed into the air. As each coin tumbles through the air, you see both sides of several coins – black / white, rich / poor, fat/ thin, liberal / conservative, moral / immoral, young / old, until one by one, they all fall down. And every last one does fall to the ground – no last minute gravity-defying flights of eternal happiness here.

Although this book is based on ‘Howard’s End’, it is not a strict retelling. The Belseys and the Kippses stand in for the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes respectively. The setting is an imaginary college town in the North East. The plot of ‘Howard’s End’ is made somewhat more complex because the Belseys are a mixed race family – the mother is black, and the father white. The writing, as I mentioned, is beautiful. The characters are so well etched out, you feel that you might recognize them if you ran into them on the road.

While ‘Howard’s End’ leaves me deeply saddened, ‘On Beauty’ almost killed what little faith I have in humanity. I am so very glad that I read this book at 27, and not at 20. Anyone who believes in anything in this novel is ultimately disappointed. It doesn’t matter what the object of their trust is – husband, father, lover, a university, or even Haiti, ever trust is broken, and every hope shattered. Claire, the woman Howard Belsey has an affair, with is the only character whose beliefs hold out. Perhaps because the woman believed all along that she will end up unhappy. This is the sort of book that is a toughie to recommend to anyone who doesn’t care to read a book simply because the writing is great. Many of my friends want at least the semblance of a happy ending. A few, like my mother, even want morality and this is certainly NOT the book for them.

As I read the novel, I couldn’t help comparing it with Saturday. Saturday was so positive. On Beauty, by contrast, is deeply cynical. Do the authors’ ages have something to do with the difference? I feel you have to be quite young to see the world with such cynical eyes, and yet have the strength to even carry on. Saturday is the voice of someone who has been through it all, and who carries the stamp of authority, when they tell you that it’s all going to work out, somehow. It’s not a cheesy Hollywood brand of happiness, but the acknowledgement of the possibility of happiness. The pace, too, was much more sedate. On Beauty is quite racy.

I am very glad I got to read On Beauty. But after a shopping spree to cheer me up, am still not over it. No wonder my friends think I’m mad. Why would anyone do this to themselves? But boy was it worth it.


5 comments so far

  1. Karthik on

    That’s almost exactly the way I felt – the writing was so warm and funny, yet the tone was deeply cynical. But I guess overall the writing won, coz I finished the book and kinda liked it.

    I can’t figure out how I felt about the book, so I haven’t gotten around to writing about it yet.

  2. DoZ on

    The book will make a great movie. Whoopi Goldberg would be perfect as Kiki with some one like Tom Wilkinson playing Howard. Morgan Freeman could be Erskine… and the ever-present Patricia Clarkson would make a great Claire… With great opportunities for young, great looking actors for the kids. I just hope they don’t make it into a happy, happy movie, or saw off half of the story as they regularly do with John Irving novels.

  3. Angelo on


  4. Arsenios on


  5. Constantinos on


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