On Beauty Summary

Zadie Smith

On Beauty

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On Beauty Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of On Beauty by Zadie Smith.

On Beauty is a 2003 novel by British author Zadie Smith, following the lives of a mixed-race British-American family living in the United States, dealing with the ethnic and cultural differences between the two countries, the nature of beauty, and the ongoing clash between liberal and conservative values in the same family and circle of friends. Described as a seriocomic novel that derives most of its power from the interaction between the characters, it also explores themes including black identity both in the US and abroad, particularly in predominantly white spaces, and the way race intersects with class, culture, and physical attractiveness. On Beauty was released to massive critical acclaim, and was shortlisted for many highly regarded awards, including the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction, the latter it won in 2006,

On Beauty focuses on the Besley family, which is led of white father Howard, a liberal college professor of art history, and black mother Kiki, who works at a hospital. They have three children – Zora, a freshman at Wellington College, where her father teaches; Jerome, an upperclassman at Brown University, and Levi, who is still in high school. When the story begins, Jerome is studying abroad and interning with a conservative academic named Monty Kipps. The Kipps, a British-Caribbean family, consist of Monty and his wife Carlene, their successful son Michael who works in finance, and their beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter Victoria. Jerome’s work with Monty causes tension between him and his father, who dislikes his son working with a conservative and has always been critical of his son’s devout Christianity. Jerome is deeply in love with Victoria Kipps and is planning to propose to her, which causes tension between Howard and Kiki. Kiki has recently discovered that Howard has been unfaithful to her, but she doesn’t know the details. Howard plans to try to break up the relationship between his son and Victoria, but his arrival in the UK is poorly timed and he winds up making a conflict between Jerome and Michael worse. Jerome leaves England to return to the US, devastated by the breakup.

Nine months later, Jerome and Kiki are at the town festival when they run into Claire Malcolm, a family friend and fellow professor at Wellington. She tells them that Monty Kipps is coming to Wellington to teach. This puts Howard into a bad mood. Jerome tries to take his father’s mind off it by suggesting they attend a public concert in Boston. There, they meet a young black man named Carl, who no longer attends school but still has a thirst for knowledge and is an avid slam poet. Later on, it’s Howard and Kiki’s anniversary party. On the way to the party, Levi runs into Carlene Kipps, although he doesn’t know it’s her. Once the Kipps are aware of the party, Kiki invites them, and all but Carlene show up. At the party, Kiki finds out that Howard’s infidelity was not a one-night stand as she believed, but an extended affair with her friend Claire. The fallout from this affects Zora directly as she begins her sophomore year of college. She is initially rejected from Claire’s poetry workshop at Wellington due to the awkwardness, but she persuades Claire to let her in. Kiki, meanwhile, takes her mind off her marriage by befriending Carlene, the two bonding over their mutual love of art. Levi is heading down a dark path, as a conflict with his manager over work hours leads him to quit his job, and he finds himself pulled into the orbit of a group of Haitian hustlers who sell-knock-off goods on the street.

Several of these stories coincide at a poetry cafe called the Bus Stop. Zora’s poetry class takes a trip there, and she sees Levi and his new friends perform a loud and intimidating set about Haitian oppression. Meanwhile, Carl performs as well and wows the crowd. He’s so excited after his set that he kisses the most beautiful girl he sees – Zora. Claire recruits him to her class as a special case so she can develop his talent. Both Zora and Victoria are enrolled in Howard’s art history class, and Howard finds himself becoming attracted to the much-younger Victoria. Victoria invites Howard to a formal student-faculty dinner coming up, but Howard’s feud with Monty is complicating affairs. Monty is attempting to bring conservative lectures to campus, which Howard is aiming to block, and Monty is aiming to shut down the discretionary students program that allowed Claire to admit Carl. Claire recruits Zora to make a speech to the faculty against Monty’s proposal. Meanwhile, Carlene and Kiki are becoming good friends as the drama involving their husbands intensifies.

The Belseys spend Christmas in London, and they receive a sudden call that Carlene has died. It seems she had been living with Cancer for a long time and hid it. She has left a valuable Haitian painting they both admired to Kiki, but the Kipps are outraged by this and claim it must have been a mistake. At the funeral, Howard is overwhelmed and runs out. He goes to visit his working-class father, who he has a tense relationship with. He later gets drunk, heads over to the Kipps’ house, and sleeps with Victoria. As Wellington’s spring semester starts, Howard fails to block Monty’s lectures, and Zora makes an impassioned plea for the discretionary students. Howard is torn between his new relationship with Victoria, and his desire to repair his unraveling marriage to Kiki. Levi, meanwhile, has been becoming more and more militant with the influences of his new friends and co-workers. Kiki visits Monty and the two have a friendly conversation about politics, but she is startled to see one of Zora’s classmates leave the house in a hurry. Carl is working at the Wellington Library, and he and Victoria are becoming closer. As Monty’s conservative lectures begin, Howard sees Kiki attend one of them. The two have a fiery confrontation at home, and they eventually have sex one final time while admitting they no longer belong together.

At a party during spring break, Zora discovers that Carl and Victoria are dating, and this leads to a blow-up where it comes out that Howard slept with Victoria as well, and that Monty is sleeping with a student. The next morning, Jerome and Zora discover that the valuable Haitian painting that the Kipps’ were keeping from Kiki has been stolen from Monty’s office. Monty accuses Carl, but it was actually Levi and his friends who stole it. Kiki discovers it under his bed, and then discovers that it was actually left to her. By the summer, Kiki and Howard are separated, with the kids staying with Howard for the time being. Howard is on the verge of tenure at Wellington, and he sees his former wife in the back row, there to support him. Although the family has been through a lot, their love for each other is still there.

In addition to On Beauty, Zadie Smith is the author of five novels – the best-known of which is White Teeth, which was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 best English-Language novels of the 20th century. She has also written multiple acclaimed short stories and several non-fiction articles on her writing process and her view on life. She is the editor of The Book of Other People, an anthology featuring short stories from some of the most acclaimed living authors. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and is currently a tenured professor at New York University’s Creative Writing Program.