On Beauty is a novel that shows us a year in the life of Howard Belsey and his family. Howard is a white art professor from England, who lives in Massachusetts with his African-American wife Kiki and their three nearly-grown children. After 30 years of marriage, Howard has an affair with a colleague which sets them all to the task of reevaluating what they thought was a happy life.
Zadie Smith's writing brought to mind a chameleon. Whenever she was talking about another character, the tone changed slightly to adapt to the personality of the character. This wasn't limited to the dialogue of the character; she also did it when an extended reference to a character was made. The effect was not jarring. Instead, it was like a slow change from one color to another.
Unlike many books that tackle weighty subjects, Smith presented them in a way that a non-college graduate like myself could understand with talking down to the reader. Howard is trying to understand why he cheated on his wife when he loves her so much. Kiki is dealing with the reactions and expectations that people have of her now that she is older and heavier than she once was. Jerome, the oldest son, goes against his upbringing and embraces Christianity. Levi, the youngest child, struggles with his identity as a biracial 16-year-old who lives in a predominantly white town but wants to surround himself with blackness. These issues are only a fraction of the ones touched upon in this novel.
I only had a few small quibbles with the book. There is a passage about a young freshman named Katie who tries to screw up her courage to speak in Howard's class. This is the first time Katie appears in the book and she never shows up again. Essentially this was an essay about a new college experience that took up nine pages (maybe less; I read a large-print edition) and did nothing to further the plot. There was also a scene halfway through that disgusted me enough to put the book down, even though Smith hinted that the characters were going down that path. Perhaps it was Smith's intent to shock the reader, but it threw me off so much that I had trouble concentrating for several pages after that.
This book is not for the person who is looking for a light vacation read. On Beauty is not wrapped up with a pretty bow with all the loose ends neatly tucked in. It has more of a "life goes on" ending. There are two sex scenes and a sprinkling of f-words throughout the book, so I wouldn't hand it to my Christian friends or my 15-year-old daughter, either. However, if you like to spend time in a character's head instead of reading lots of dialogue and scenery descriptions, then On Beauty is for you.