51 pages 1 hour read

Zadie Smith

On Beauty

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


On Beauty by the celebrated British author Zadie Smith was published in 2005. On Beauty was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction. Smith is known for writing novels and essays that analyze the intersections of identity in the contemporary world with nuance, clarity, and empathy. She is also known to be influenced by the classic English author E.M. Forster. On Beauty is loosely based on Forster’s masterpiece Howard’s End. This influence is evident in the structure, themes, and characterizations throughout On Beauty.

Separated into three distinct parts, On Beauty explores the theme of beauty through the conflicts, internal and external, of characters struggling to come to terms with themselves. On Beauty is contemporary literary fiction reflective of current political issues and celebrates diverse views of dealing with the world.

Plot Summary

On Beauty begins with the tribulations of the Belsey family. Howard Belsey, the father, is English an art historian at Wellington College, just outside of Boston. He and his wife Kiki have three children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. At the beginning of the novel, Jerome is in England studying under Monty Kipps, a Black conservative academic who is in a long-standing feud with Howard. During the time of his studies, Jerome lives with Monty’s family and falls in love with Monty’s daughter Victoria. They get engaged, but the engagement is quickly called off. Jerome returns to the U.S. depressed, and his family foundation is not strong either. Howard has had an affair with Claire Malcolm, a fellow Wellington faculty member and long-time family friend. Though Kiki has been trying to forgive Howard, she is made more upset by the revelation that the other woman in question was Claire, and that it was more than the one-night stand Howard originally admitted to.

The Belsey family members are also navigating their Black identity. Levi, the youngest son, is attracted to Black street culture even though he comes from a wealthy mixed-race family. Zora, the daughter, tries to follow in her father’s academic footsteps but also struggles to find her footing as a Black woman and art historian. The Belseys’ complicated relationship with race is juxtaposed by the Kipps family, who are fully committed to the preservation of Black culture in ways that seem extreme to the Belseys. Howard’s feud with Monty threatens to grow worse when Monty accepts a temporary lectureship position at Wellington, placing both families in the same neighborhood.

Howard and Kiki’s marriage implodes, though they choose to continue living in the same house. Jerome tries to get his life back on track. Zora gets into Claire’s poetry class by accusing her of unfair treatment due to her personal issues with Howard. At a poetry event in the city, Zora recognizes a handsome young man who sat next to her at a Mozart concert. The young man, Carl, is the best rapper of the night, so Claire invites him to audit her poetry class even though he's not a Wellington student. Claire’s decision to bring in unenrolled students is controversial, so she gets Zora to agree to advocate for her at an upcoming faculty meeting. Meanwhile, Levi has been skipping school to sell fake designer handbags with a new group of friends from Roxbury. Howard continues his work, and everyone is on edge for the upcoming faculty meeting, where Howard’s attempts to stop Monty’s lectures will be debated. Howard has become transfixed by Victoria, who attends one of his courses. Kiki and Carlene, Monty’s wife, have developed a friendship, but Kiki is concerned about Carlene’s health and domineering husband.

Carlene dies of a cancer she didn’t disclose to her family. She leaves her painting of the goddess Erzulie to Kiki, but the Kipps family burns her note so they can keep the valuable painting in the family. The Belseys attend Carlene’s funeral in London. Howard is so moved by the service that he leaves and walks to his father’s house, where they argue. At Carlene’s wake, Howard and Victoria have sex.

Back in Wellington, Zora successfully defends the right of unenrolled students to audit classes at Wellington. Howard is unsuccessful in blocking Monty’s controversial lecture series. Carl is given a job as a Hip-Hop archivist at Wellington, but Zora is disappointed that the new job has made Carl uninterested in her mission to keep him in Claire’s poetry class. Victoria pursues Howard with explicit emails, but he rebuffs her in a hotel room, which makes Victoria feel bad. Victoria moves on to Carl. When Jerome is back from college for Spring Break, he and Zora go to a party where they walk in on Carl and Victoria having sex. Zora confronts Carl, but Carl points out her hypocrisy and her superiority complex in trying to project her desires onto him. Carl alludes to their father sleeping with Victoria and reveals that Monty has been sleeping with Chantelle, a young woman who interns for him. Carl identifies the moral bankruptcy of the academic community and regrets entering into it.

Zora is called in for an emergency meeting with the dean. Monty hung the painting of Erzulie in the Black Studies department, but it was stolen. He accuses Carl of the theft, but Zora tells him to ask his daughter if he wants to know about Carl’s whereabouts the night of the theft.

At the Belsey house, Kiki finds the painting in Levi’s room. Levi and his friend Choo, a Haitian immigrant, stole it from Wellington as a way of reclaiming what they believe Monty has stolen from the Haitian community. Zora confronts her father about what she heard about his sexual relationship with Victoria.

Kiki and Howard split up and she moves into her own place. She takes Monty to court for ownership of the painting after Jerome finds a note attached to the painting, evidence that Carlene left it for Kiki. Howard is attempting to rehabilitate his floundering career with an important lecture. He is full of hope when he sees that Kiki is in attendance.