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On Beauty is about two families on opposing sides of the culture war: The atheist, liberal Belseys on one side and the ultra-religious, ultra-conservative Kipps' on the other. It's also about race and racial identity: black versus white, academic life and intellectualism and the hypocrisy of those the "firm ideals". Though I found the book well written I found it difficult to like many of the main characters, particularly Howard and Zora. These two characters show the hypocrisy of their lives and beliefs and their lack of real emotional intelligence or empathy. The characters I was able to connect with were Kiki, Levi and Carlene--who show real growth and understanding of their lives. They were the real redemption of this novel. 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.
posted Feb 1, 2013 at 3:45PM
** stars I really wanted to like this book because I had heard such praise for Ms. Smith. She is an excellent writer, but this book failed me because I did not care about or else actively despised the main characters. Howard Belsey is an Englishman teaching in Wellington, a college town in New England. After 30 years of marriage he is struggling to revive his love for his African American wife Kiki ( my favorite character, but she appears far too infrequently and definitely should kick his ass to the side ) ( the book does have one of the finest descriptions of mature sex that I have ever read) . Meanwhile, his three teenage children Jerome, Zora and Levi are struggling with their own lives. After Howard has a disastrous affair with a colleague, his sensitive older son, Jerome, escapes to England for the holidays. In London he defies everything the Belseys represent when he goes to work for Trinidadian right-wing academic, Monty Kipps. Taken in by the Kipps family for the summer, Jerome falls for Monty's beautiful daughter, Victoria. But this short-lived romance has long-lasting consequences, drawing these very different families into each other's lives. As Kiki develops a friendship with Mrs. Kipps, and Howard and Monty do battle on different sides of the culture war, hot-headed Zora brings a handsome young man from the Boston streets into their midst whom she is determined to draw into the fold of the black middle class. Part of my problem with the book is that I have lost all patience with men and women who allow lust and selfishness to be justifications for despicable behavior - in one case the sexual abuse of a young student by a professor. I disliked both the adult and the child-woman, but this sexual scene seemed unnecessary for the story line and led me to wonder about the author's inclusion of it, especially because his behavior had no consequences for the professor. Does this young woman author find such an encounter titillating or despicable? I could not identify with the teenagers. I did empathize with the street kid who had talent, but was used by Zora and ended up a child at the candy store window. The two professors are egomaniacs who allow themselves to cause harm with impunity. Kiki stands out in the chaos around her with great integrity, but she is not enough to allow me to like the book. Sorry to say, I cannot recommend.
posted Sep 4, 2013 at 2:46AM
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Studied Rembrandt though he doesn't like Rembrandt; married for thirty years to Kiki; has no clear plans for his future.
Howard's wife; former activist;.
Howard and Kiki's oldest son; struggles to believe in God though his family doesn't; falls in love with Victoria.
Daughter of a right-wing icon; in love with Jerome.
Searches for authentic blackness.
Believes intellectuals can redeem everyone.